Topping liked the smell of his Uncle Cy's car painting shop. It was an old building where one's nose is smothered with an old musty smell of crumbling mortar and the modern chemical smell of sprayed paint. He knew of no other place that seemed so clean and at the same time so grungy.
Topping had already washed Bartholomew's 1974 Peugeot and removed any wax or grease from its surface. He was about to scuff the pink and white paint so the old paint could receive the new. Once he started this step, there was no turning back, he would have to paint Bartholomew's car no matter what. Topping's hand shook a little, as he placed the scuffing pad on the surface. He took a deep breath. He waited. Did he really know what he was doing? This job was far beyond anything he had done up to this point. What if he failed? He could always paint it white with a pink stripe again, he knew he could do that much, at least. Topping's hand started to move, ruining the smooth slick finish. The die was cast.
It took a while to properly scuff every corner and nook on the car. When he was done he took another deep breath. He felt like he hadn't breathed during the whole process. He wiped the car down again and then tacked it clean. Topping was becoming intimately familiar with the surface of the Peugeot. He noticed a few small dents he had never noticed before. The key holes had small shallow scratches around them and on the chrome. The corner of one door was ever so slightly bent, leaving a crack in the old paint surface. As he scuffed, it became obvious where the sealcoat had worn away, leaving a slight dulling that was erased as his pad circled over it again and again. His fingertips could feel the bleached out paint, the surfaces made ragged from excessive heat. His body was melding over the rocker panels and the sidewalls. The Peugeot was slowly but surely being absorbed into Topping’s very being. Soon they would begin to communicate-- the car whispering to the young man what he had missed, where he had not scuffed enough, where to place the seems of the masks, and eventually, most importantly of all, how it wanted to be painted. Topping knew the final product was not up to Bartholomew. It was not even up to Topping. The car was in charge. It was only up to Topping to listen or ignore – and he didn't know how to ignore.
After a little more work on the dents and dings, Topping taped all of the chrome and trim. He then covered the windshield, windows, grill and lights with paper and taped the edges down. He was ready to apply the base color of the car. He loaded his spray gun with the green paint and began the mechanical and rhythmic back and forth spraying motion.
He came home well after midnight, had some leftovers from the refrigerator and headed to bed. Charlotte did not wake. Topping's sleep was fitful as images of the design waged war in his head. He was up for good before the alarm went off. He got out of bed, had a quick breakfast and headed back to the shop.
Topping arrived just as Uncle Cy was turning on the lights. Uncle Cy spent some time looking over Topping’s paint job. He nodded his head in approval. This gave Topping a little extra spring in his step for the rest of the morning. He went to a table at the back of the shop, grabbed some masking paper, pulled off part of the backing and headed to the hood of the Peugeot. He carefully secured the first sheet onto the car. There could be no wrinkles. His hands could feel the sheet adhere to the surface below it, inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter. Not a wrinkle. If he sensed a possible wrinkle starting, he would pull the paper back slightly, caress it to the surface and seduce it into place. The paper had no chance to object, it wouldn't dare. This dance went on for a long time. Upon loving the last sheet into place, Topping stepped back and realized he was sweating, exhausted and hungry. He could now leave the Peugeot in this state until the next step: drawing the design right onto the car.
He went home for lunch and to take a nap. He woke up about the time Charlotte got home from work.
“Where were you last night?” Charlotte asked, obviously a little mad.
“I was at the shop, working on the Peug..., on Bartholomew's car.”
“It would have been nice to get a call or something.”
“I'm sorry, I was just into it and didn't notice the time passing,” apologized Topping.
“I don't like it when the only clue I had that you were even here last night was your cereal bowl in the sink,” said Charlotte as she hung up her coat.
“I'm sorry, I just had the car on my mind and I wanted to get right back at it this morning,” Topping said as he moved to the kitchen to get something to eat.
“Are you making supper?”
Topping, not having even thought about what he was doing, stammered,, “Uh...uh...”
“Oh never mind,” Charlotte groaned.
Topping pulled out some leftovers, enough for him and Charlotte, and threw them in the microwave. He grabbed a couple of glasses, some leftover salad and placed it all on the table. The microwave beeped. “I have some food ready, if you want,” yelled
Bartholomew Topping back to
Charlotte who had retreated to the bedroom. No response.
Topping sat down at the card table and started to eat. He was almost done when Charlotte arrived. She sat down roughly in her folding chair and then picked at the now-cold food. They ate in silence. Topping finished his food, took his plate and bowl to the dishwasher and then served himself some ice cream. “Want some?” he asked. No response. Topping sighed.
After they were done eating, Charlotte asked, “Are you going back tonight?”
“I was thinking of it,” he said. No response.
“Look, I'm really worried about this job. It's the biggest one I've ever done and I'm changing the design on the fly...”
“You're changing the design?! You spent two months working on that design! And now you're changing it? Does Bartholomew even know? Never mind Bartholomew, you spent how many nights working on that design instead of hanging out with me, and now you're changing it? Boy, that makes me feel good!”
“No,...I...Agghhh!” said Topping. “I'm just trying to do a good job! It could lead to more work. I want Bartholomew to be happy....”
“Fine, make Bartholomew happy. In the meantime you're making me unhappy.” Charlotte stood up and went to the bedroom.
Topping put on his shoes and got ready to go to the shop. But then he thought maybe he should stay home and do something with Charlotte. He certainly didn't feel like doing that now. Topping sat perplexed. In the end, he knew he wanted to be working on the car, so he left and went to the shop. He was hoping Uncle Cy would still be there so he could talk with him about Charlotte, but he was already gone.
Topping went to the Peugeot and ran his hand over the masked surface. It felt good to him. The next step was to draw the design on it. Now he wasn't feeling like doing that either. Topping sat down perplexed. But he figured he was already at the shop, so he might as well get some work done. He found a pencil on the table and held it between his fingers. It felt right. He walked to his partner, the Peugeot, and began to discuss with his eyes how to start drawing the design. When the time was right, and no sooner, he placed the graphite on the paper and drew a large arc. It was wrong. He started again. This was better, but still wrong. He drew a third time, this one felt right. He continued. He worked for several hours getting every line in just the right place. If he felt inside himself that a line was not right, he would do it again and again until there was peace inside him.
Topping stepped back to assess his work. Faint lines played over the surface of the Peugeot. His design felt happy. That made Topping happy. He went to the table and picked up his cell phone and called Charlotte. “Hi Honey. Yeah, I'm coming home now. No. I just wanted to let you know. Okay, I'll see you soon.” Before turning out the lights and going home, Topping took one more look at his work. It felt good.
The next morning, Topping walked into the stall where he was painting the Peugeot to find a big note stuck on the car. “What the fuck are you doing? Uncle Cy.” Topping laughed. He was sure Uncle Cy must think he is crazy. It certainly was not your typical flame job he was painting. It is definitely the first one of its kind in this shop.
Topping grabbed an Xacto knife and headed to the car. He sobered himself up by breathing deeply. When he exhaled he bent over the hood to begin the next step. After having drawn the design on the masking paper, Topping now had to cut away the areas of the mask that he didn't need. This meant cutting through the paper and not into the painted surface below. It takes concentration. If Topping were to cut the painted surface it would show, even after he painted it. The tip of the blade pierced the paper. Toppings fingers could feel the blade tap the surface below. He stopped and then slowly but firmly pulled the blade through the surface of the paper toward himself. He had to cut all the way to the next line without stopping. Sure and consistent, Topping carved away the first shape of paper. He tugged at its edges and pulled the paper, like taffy, up and away from the car. The first piece of masking was removed. Now Topping had to do this many times over, always making sure that he was only cutting through the layer of paper. Several hours later he was done with the first stage of removing the mask. Next he had to paint where he had cut away, but Topping felt exhausted from concentrating so hard. He thought that he had not cut into the car's surface at all. Time would tell. Topping grabbed a ginger ale out of a small refrigerator, took a swig and then put his feet up to rest. He couldn't remember the last time he had concentrated that hard for that long. He decided to have lunch.
It’s hard to imagine that using a roller to paint a car is a good idea, but that is what Topping had to do next. He very carefully used a small paint roller to leave an ultra thin layer of bright red paint in the areas where he had removed the masking material. If the paint felt too thick he would wipe it off and start again. He would keep correcting it until it felt right. After finishing that layer of paint, he went back to cutting away some of the mask. Once enough mask was gone he added another layer of paint. Topping stopped and called Charlotte to tell her he would soon be home. Charlotte was a bit cold toward him. He didn't care. Topping was so exhausted he just wanted to go home and sleep. Which he did, even though Charlotte wanted to stay up together and watch a movie.
The next morning Uncle Cy walked into the stall while Topping was removing more mask.
“Is this really the design you wanted? I thought I saw something quite different before,” asked Uncle Cy.
“Yeah, well, I'm kinda winging the design a little. I just felt like he needed a little more than just flames...and the car wants more,” Topping said a little sheepishly.
Uncle Cy shook his head and smiled. He was not questioning Topping’s sanity, he recognized an addiction he was all too familiar with. Uncle Cy reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a blade. “Where do you want me to start?”
Topping smiled and directed Uncle Cy as to what needed to be cut away and what needed to stay. Uncle Cy pulled a pencil from behind his ear and marked an “x” on all the pieces that needed to be removed and began to carefully cut away the mask. Both of them worked the morning together and then Uncle Cy took Topping to a sandwich shop and bought him lunch. At about four o'clock, Topping finished up for the day. He felt right. Somehow, he felt a couple years older.
Topping went home and started cooking dinner for Charlotte – pancakes with sausage and eggs. It was about all he knew how to cook. He set the table. He even set napkins at the table. He wanted to impress Charlotte. When Charlotte arrived home she was surprised and touched by Topping’s thoughtfulness. After dinner, they made love and fell to sleep in each others arms. Topping knew, no matter how old he got, life didn't get any better than this.
The next day, Friday, Topping was painting on his own as Uncle Cy had other jobs to do. The day was as slow as a slug. It seemed to take Topping forever to do each step. By lunch it was as if it should have been dinner time. After lunch, Topping worked steadily but still felt like he wasn't making any headway. He lost track of time and when he reached a break point it was almost nine o'clock at night. “Oh shit,” he said as he finally thought of Charlotte. She didn't answer the phone. Topping wrapped up as quickly as he could but he was going to take the weekend off and needed to do some extra cleaning. He didn't get home until ten. Charlotte was not home.
Around midnight Charlotte woke Topping as she climbed into bed. “Hi,” he said. Charlotte said nothing and went to sleep. The rest of the weekend was about the same, a little chilly, not much fun and not what either of them wanted.
The next week, Topping painted the car every day. He called Charlotte each afternoon and tried to be home early – mostly he was. The last couple of days he had to do some small detail work with an airbrush then sealcoat it. Come Saturday morning, the morning they were going to plant the garden, Topping had to wax and buff the car. It wasn't much to do, but he was going to be late to the garden. He had told Bartholomew that he would help him build the garden and he felt that he should be there from the start. But he had also promised Bartholomew his car. So Topping decided to finish the car and be late for the gardening.
Around ten in the morning, Topping finished. He stepped back to take it in. It was beautiful. Every detail felt right. Standing there, Topping sensed how intimate he had become with this car. He was aware of every inch of its surface, every dimple, every dent. He knew the trim as well as he knew the back of his hand. The partnership between them was keen on his senses. His fingertips could still feel her. Her smell was familiar. Her sight now pulsed with an energy that radiated from her into Topping and then through his hands back onto her skin. She was transformed into a more true state of herself, a car that would be truly pleasing to Bartholomew.
Topping quickly cleaned her interior and opened the garage door. He lovingly inserted the key into her and turned her on. She purred. She felt right. He pulled out of the garage and drove to the garden. His window rolled down, the sun shining through the trees and the radio on, Topping knew life didn't get any better than this.__________________________________________________________ Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrated by Todd Balthazor