Arturo was from South America. He called Joe one Sunday evening in late July, friend of a friend of, and offered him two days painting work in a flat on the Boulevard St. Michel, up by the Pantheon. It was good news for Joe, who had just sent his wife and baby daughter off to the country, and was planning to join them within the week. The money from this job would extend their simple holiday by several days.
Arturo made the job sound like a short stroll in a pair of slippers, telling Joe that the preparation was all finished, the woodwork was already painted, all that was needed was one coat of white matt for the walls and ceilings, nothing to it, piece of cake. Two days maximum. He didn't mention money, so Joe did. Once they got that sorted out, Arturo gave Joe the address and an appointment for nine o'clock the next morning.
Joe was there ten minutes early, and spent long anxious moments walking up and down in front of the building before finally phoning Arturo from the corner café. Arturo answered with a startled sleepy voice, then, blustering, alleged unpredictable delay due to urgent early-morning business. He arrived at twenty past ten with a dab of shaving cream behind one ear, scowling, chewing gum and snapping his fingers dramatically, just as busy as could be.
Arturo was a large specimen with a thick macho moustache. Changing into his overalls, he looked pretty much like a wardrobe painted olive drab. He showed Joe an angry pink scar in the palm of his left hand, turning the hand over to show that the wound went straight through. "Black y Decker," he announced, going on to explain that due to the stress and fatigue of an impossibly heavy work schedule, he'd recently drilled through his own hand with an eight-millimetre masonry bit.
He gave Joe the tour. It was a fair job. Two large living rooms with precarious stacks of sheeted furniture, a long empty corridor opening to three smaller rooms, and a large bedroom at the far end. Back in one of the living rooms, Arturo broke the bad news. Despite careful planning, and due to unforeseen and burdensome incidents such as this morning, he was a little behind schedule - in fact, he went on, gazing candidly at Joe's hairline, there was still some sand-papering to do. With that, he presented Joe with a fucking quire of sandpaper. Joe's heart sank, but, thinking of money, he nodded dutifully, his gaze fixed carefully on the neutral middle distance, most of it ineluctably occupied by large sections of Arturo. Joe was left in the back room, and Arturo went off to tackle the bedroom.
Joe spent three and a half hours sanding down the first room, stopping occasionally to breathe out of the window into a quiet luminous courtyard, wondering how you actually manage to drill right through your own hand. When he'd finished the ceiling and all four walls, he went to see how Arturo was doing.
Arturo was standing barefoot on the small balcony, leaning languidly on the railing and gazing out across the Jardin de Luxembourg with a proprietary air, as if it were the family rancho. On the balcony beside him was an uncapped bottle of Southern Comfort, a few inches gone. The protective sheet on the bed bore the imprint of a large spread-eagled body. All his questions answered, Joe turned back without a word and began sanding the larger second room.
He had finished that and the combined acreage of the three smaller rooms, and was labouring his lonely way back up the corridor when the doorbell rang. Joe opened the door to admit a colossal Hispanic female wearing a diaphanous summer frock and a battered pair of black combat boots. She beamed down at him with apparent delight, and Joe felt his testicles retract as her scarlet mouth widened alarmingly. Hair writhing in a henna frenzy, voracious eyes, and a jaw like the front of a Ford Transit.
"Graziella!" Arturo followed this theatrical salutation down his borrowed corridor, managing, despite his grimy overalls, to project something suave and quintessentially macho. Graziella purred like a tiger spotting lunch.
Due to his coating of white dust, Joe knew himself to be clearly visible, but nonetheless, standing only five foot three, withdrew prudently into a doorway as these two large mammals closed with each other. The lovers collided amorously and rebounded, grappling, whereupon Arturo turned swiftly aside with a lewd wink, slipped Joe the keys to the apartment and graciously suggested he take the rest of the afternoon off. Weary, Joe accepted this offer, declining to point out that it was now nearly eight o'clock in the evening.
The phone rang at eleven-thirty that night, dragging Joe from the sleep of exhaustion. With a pale voice, Arturo asked if Joe wouldn't mind starting a little early the next day. He hadn't had time to finish sanding the very large bedroom, he explained, and then reminded Joe to vacuum well before he started painting.
Joe slammed the apartment door behind him at five past six the next morning. He had come bearing a Thermos of truly violent coffee and a scowl similar to the one used by Vin Diesel for decimating Los Angeles. He finished the corridor, sanded the bedroom flat, methodically vacuumed every plane surface in the apartment, and then, his jaw muscles working furiously, went back over everything twice with a damp rag. When he nearly stabbed himself with a screwdriver opening the big tin of paint, it occurred to him that he should ease up on the coffee, but then drank some more of it anyway. It was black as hate and viscous with sugar, and drove him seething up the ladder to slap his roller into the back left hand corner of the ceiling in Room Number One. This was Joe's designated point of departure, and no force on Earth could have made him change his mind.
By the time Arturo ambled in around mid-afternoon, Joe had finished painting the two main rooms and the bedroom and was just starting on the ceiling at the far end of the corridor. The Thermos was almost empty, and the tendons in Joe's neck were taut as guy-ropes. He heard Arturo's mutters of astonishment as he made his way through the apartment, finally pushing past the foot of Joe's ladder to stand in the bedroom doorway and take in more glistening horizons of virginal white.
Arturo stood breathing heavily for a moment, then turned and looked up at Joe, who made an honest attempt to stop grinding his teeth. For several seconds, Arturo stared at Joe with undisguised awe, and then finally spoke.
"Michelangelo!" he said.
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