He moved his hands across the surface feeling for bumps, dimples or pits. It was smooth.
“Topping!” yelled Uncle Cy.
Topping looked up, nodded, put down the sander and walked to Uncle Cy’s office.
“Sit down, Topping,” said Uncle Cy, as he gestured toward a coffee pot.
Topping shook his head at the offer of coffee and sat down on a duct tape-patched naugahyde-covered kitchen chair. Uncle Cy sat on the edge of an old wooden desk in his one-piece blue Carhartt, and he shifted papers around. He sipped coffee from his mug—the one with the words “World’s Greatest Dad” written on the side, except the word “Dad” was written-over with the word “Asshole.”
“Topping, you know business has been getting a little slow lately. With Christmas coming, nobody is going to get their auto painted. They’re going to spend their money on presents and decorations and shit. So, after we finish Mr. Torvenstrum’s car, I’m gonna have to let you go for a little while – just until the end of January when things should pick up again.”
Topping stared at him and nodded.
Uncle Cy tilted his head to one side, raised one large white eyebrow and looked at Topping’s face to make sure he was okay. Satisfied, he continued, “Maybe you could get a job at a store where you can buy that girl of yours a real nice Christmas present. They give out some big discounts to employees sometimes.”
Uncle Cy tilted his head the other way and lifted his other big white eyebrow. Unsatisfied, he continued, “I promise, I’ll hire you back in January.”
“Okay,” replied Topping, relieved that he wasn’t being let go for good but disappointed to not be making money just before the holidays. Topping liked working with Uncle Cy. He was easy going, a little salty and was patiently teaching his nephew everything he needed to know to become “the best damn car painter in the Midwest” – like his Uncle Cy. Topping also liked the work. He liked the detail involved in car painting; sanding the surface until it was perfectly smooth, applying the tape over the trim, spraying the paint with a smooth mechanical motion of the arm and the repeated layering of these activities when creating a custom paint job. Topping had already helped paint flames on five cars. Uncle Cy did most of the creative paint jobs and would touch-up work that Topping had started. But Topping was already able to do a small flame job almost on his own.
* * *
Even before he opened the apartment door, Topping could smell the pizza that Charlotte was baking. He entered, took off his shoes and brought his lunchbox into the kitchen and placed it on the counter.
“Hi Honey,” Charlotte said while making salad.
Topping walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face into her long brown hair. He moved his hands feeling the smoothness of her stomach and then placed them gently on her breasts. He kissed Charlotte on the neck.
“Okay, Tiger,” Charlotte said with a smile. “I’m saving that for dessert.”
Topping hugged Charlotte while she finished making the salad.
“Could you check on the pizza?” Charlotte asked as the timer bell rang.
Topping reluctantly pulled his arms from around her and turned to open the oven door. The heat rolled out onto his face and his skin hurt for a moment. The pizza was done. Topping grabbed an oven mitt that resembled a chicken. He closed the beak around the pizza tray and pulled it out of the heat. Charlotte buys frozen cheese pizzas and then adds her own toppings. This makes her feel like a chef. Tonight she decorated the large disk of cheese with some pepperoni, black olives and green pepper slices.
Topping and Charlotte’s apartment is always hot beyond their control. Though it is only twenty degrees Fahrenheit outside, Charlotte is wearing a simple summer print dress with spaghetti straps. She places the salads on a small card table next to glasses of ice water. Topping admires her bare legs and arms, her neck and clavicle bones. He dishes out slices of pizza on a couple of chipped plates and brings them over to Charlotte who is sitting on a folding chair.
Her long brown hair hangs down over her plate as she bows for a silent prayer that Topping never shares. After a whispered “amen,” she lifts up her face to him. He sees eyes shining with happiness, bright with satisfaction in sharing dinner with the man across the table from her. Charlotte smiles at Topping as she chews on some salad, her toes touching his under the table.
“How was work today?” she asks.
Topping doesn’t answer her. In thirty-seven seconds he will tell her that he will be out of work for at least two months. In fifty-two seconds he will tell her that there won’t be much money for Christmas. He will tell her and he knows, to the deepest depths of his heart, that even after telling her the bad news she will still look across the table at him with deep contentment. In a minute and a half, he will suggest that they cancel their plans to have a New Years Eve party for all their friends. Despite all the disappointment, he knows she will still share herself with him tonight with complete surety and passion.
Charlotte looks at him with slight concern on her face.
“Honey, is everything okay?”
Topping stares back at her, breathes heavily, relaxes his shoulders and says, “Yes, everything is amazing.”
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrations by Mark Granlund