BY: REBECCA MARKS
It is 1967. Bostonian John Griffin has been discharged from the US Navy, and he’s ready to start a job as a policeman in Washington, DC. His father died when John was very young, and his mother has never been openly supportive of him, which makes him an angry man. His anger spills over in many different ways. He’s angry that he married Raylene—a woman he doesn’t love—because she got pregnant, although he loves his daughter Miki; he’s furious with his landlords for sneaking into the apartment when he was out, so before he leaves, he paints everything black—the walls, the doors, even the windows. As soon as he and his family arrive in DC, John, who is white, is confronted with some youths having a violent fight at his new apartment complex. He saves the life of one of them, a black man whose mother, Lilah, is so grateful that she takes John, his wife, their daughter, and even their dog, under her wing and becomes like a second mother to him. John is sure his mother, who is very intolerant of black people, would be horrified at this, but he loves Lilah and is grateful to her for caring for his family while he works long hours. He learns from his relationship with her that the color of someone’s skin is not important. After many adventures and misadventures as a policeman, John meets Lilah’s niece Doris, who is biracial, and the two fall deeply in love. But John is married and expecting another child. Can he resolve this dilemma and make Doris his own, or is he doomed to be forever unhappy?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Paint It Black by Rebecca Marks, John Griffin is a DC cop in 1967, married to a woman he doesn’t love with three small children, and in love with a woman not his wife. Caught between a rock and a hard place, so to speak, he tries to navigate the murky waters of his job, his marriage, his family, and his own dreams. His adventures and misadventures on the police force compete with his misadventures at home. John loves his children very much, but can he give them up to have the woman he really loves?
Well written, cute, clever, and poignant, this is a story that is hard to pin down to one genre, having a little bit of everything. But it is definitely a story that will catch and hold your interest all the way through.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Paint It Black by Rebecca Marks is the story of John Griffin, a young man from Boston who gets out of the navy and decides to become a fireman. But because he is a bit dyslexic, he takes the wrong test and ends up a cop in Washington DC. So John moves his family—wife Raylene and daughter Mikki—to Washington DC. But before he leaves Boston, he paints his apartment black because his landlord won’t return his security deposit. When he gets to Washington DC, the first thing he does is rescue a black kid living in his apartment complex, and the kid’s mother, Lilah, takes John and his family under her wing. John loves hers. She loves him back and is proud of him, something his own mother never seemed to be. Lilah becomes like a second mother to John, and life seems to be going well, until John falls in love with her niece. But by now he has three kids, and his new love refuses to be a one night stand or the other woman. John has some serious thinking to do if he is ever going to get his life back on track.
With marvelous characters that you can’t help but sympathize with, a complicated and twisted plot, and plenty of surprises, Paint It Black will make you laugh, make you sigh and make you tear up, sometimes all on the same page. Another jewel in the crown of this talented author.
The last remnants of my masterpiece are dribbling down the walls of the apartment–black, thick ooze, clotting in abstract blisters, dry on the outside and wet on the inside. With each broad stroke of the paintbrush, I feel a little jolt of anger flow out of my soul. It feels good. I survey my work and give myself an “A.” I’m pleased that I thought to paint over the windows and the inside doors, too. I see a red door, and I want it painted black floats through my mind like a broken record. I hold the brush up away from the wall and don’t notice that some globs of paint are dribbling down the handle and onto my wrist and forearm.
My wife Raylene stands staring out the window at the beach out a small opening I missed on the front window, her cheek resting on the top of the broom as she holds on to it as if it were actually supporting her, when it’s obvious that if she leaned on it hard, the bristles would buckle, and she would come tumbling down face-first. The pile of dust and debris is still sitting there, in the same place it has been since I asked her to sweep up. I look at her for a moment–the first time I saw her, at that dance in Hingham, I thought she was really cute–tall and a little skinny, but with some nice curves, long blonde hair, blue eyes, sexy lips–not a conventional beauty, but sexy enough to want to screw. Now she looks a little haggard, even though she’s only twenty-two, and I can’t figure out why, because she doesn’t do much of anything.
“Are you ready to go?”
I’m annoyed, feel my face flushing from the neck up, a little bead of sweat trickling like a narrow stream from the bridge of my nose down toward my nostrils, making the sunglasses slip down–I have that small Irish nose that doesn’t hold them up too well anyway. I rub my face hard with my shirt sleeve, Ma’s script, Don’t do that, Griffo, you’ll get your shirt dirty. Use your handkerchief, running through my head. I can’t turn that off, and it plays over and over, clashing with the song. I’ve always hated being called Griffo. My dad was Griff, John Joseph Griffin, Sr., and instead of calling me Junior, even after he died, they called me Griffo. The kids in the neighborhood always laughed and called me guinea, because my nickname ended in “o.” That really hurt, but in the long run, it just made me tougher. I brush up against the newly painted wall, and a stripe of wet paint sticks to my cheek, so I can sort of see it out of my peripheral vision. “Shit!”
I guess I look like a football player getting ready to go out in the sun, but with the black streaks on my face vertical instead of horizontal.
“What the hell–I told you to clean up this mess. We have to get out of here.” I yank the broom out from under her and start sweeping like there’s no tomorrow, pushing the debris toward the front door. She jumps back, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping in a capital O, as if she had been asleep there. Her hair is stringy now, damp from the humidity. The baby starts screaming in her crib, but I am determined to wait for Raylene, my daughter’s mother, to go comfort her. I know she won’t, though. I’ll break down and do it like I always do. Nothing against the baby–I’m crazy about her–but what kind of a mother doesn’t pay attention to her crying baby?
“We have to get out of here.” I say it again. “Before they see the…” My voice trails off–the black walls and everything look a little ominous, but it makes me laugh. Mission accomplished.
“I…I don’t think I want to go. Besides, why does it matter if we sweep the floor? You just painted everything black.” She kind of giggles in that stupid, self-conscious way I hate.
I ignore her question, even though it’s a fairly rational one for her. But I don’t want to get into it, just want to get out of here. “Come on, Raylene, we talked about this. You agreed. What the hell is this all about? Go pick up the baby–none of this is her fault. How can you listen to her screaming?” I sound frenzied, even to myself.
Raylene doesn’t move, like she’s glued to the floor, and I drop the broom and go to the sink to clean my hands and face. I know I’m muttering, but I’m so annoyed, I don’t even know what I’m saying. I turn the water on hard, so it sprays all over the sink and the floor as I push my hands under the stream, rubbing them hard to get the paint and dirt off.
“We already have the apartment lease signed. I’m supposed to show up for work on Monday. We’re going.” I’m not sure she can hear me over the running water.
The baby keeps crying, so I give up and head to the bedroom. I pause to admire my work as I go. I painted the entire living room, dining area, and kitchen. The walls are black, the ceilings are black, and as a little “extra,” I made a last-minute decision to roll black paint over the counters and the appliances in the kitchen, and then to paint all the windows in the front of the apartment. I pick up the crying baby and cradle her in my arms, trying to keep black paint off her clothes and her skin. Her diaper is dripping wet, the pee oozing down her legs. A puff of ammonia smell permeates the air, which is so damp, no smell can evaporate into it.
“Oh, sweetie,” I croon, fitting the words into the tempo of the song in my head. “How long has it been since you’ve been changed?” I throw a clean diaper down, place the baby gently on the floor, and unpin the soaking diaper, throwing it onto the shag carpet. Then I wipe her off and put on a new diaper and rubber pants. The only piece of furniture left in here is the Porta Crib, and that will fold up onto the roof of the station wagon before we leave. All the big stuff went on the moving truck this morning.
“Shhh…honey, shhh. There you go. Nice and dry.”
She’s been crying so long and hard, there are tear stains all over her cheeks, which are so red they look as if they had been smeared with rouge. I blot the tears away with a clean tissue I find in my pants pocket. The Porta Crib sheet is drenched, so I don’t put her back in.
“Raylene, come get your daughter. She was soaking wet. I changed her.” The baby starts to quiet down, breaking my heart with those little pathetic gasps that happen at the end of a crying jag. She snuggles into my arms and shudders a big sigh. “You must have been so miserable, in all that wetness. Shhh…”
Raylene makes some sort of noise and drops the broom, which she had retrieved. She walks into the bedroom, and I hand her the baby and then pick up the two bulging suitcases that are sitting outside the bedroom door. The car is almost completely crammed with everything we’re bringing–lamps, pillows, dishes, silverware–there’s room for the three of us in the front seat and a small space to jam in the suitcases in the back, and not much more. Raylene will have to hold the baby on her lap for the drive, because the two-tone, blue and white 1960 Ford Country Squire I bought for $50 from my stepfather Ned has no more room. It’s a big car, but somehow we managed to stuff it to the brim with all our belongings to save money on the move–just moving big stuff like the bed, bureaus, sofa, and dining room table was less expensive than having the moving company take boxes too. I’m also worrying that Ned wouldn’t have sold it to me unless there was something wrong with it. I don’t trust that guy. We look like fucking Okies, I’m thinking as I push the suitcases in, worried there’s no room for the crib. Something inside breaks with a bad sound, but the suitcases are in, and I somehow get the door closed. Whatever it was that broke will have to wait until the unpacking. I’m pretending I didn’t hear it.
I survey the top of the car, happy it’s flat and not domed. I had thrown a blue tarp across the top and laid various items Raylene “couldn’t live without” over it, as well as a supply of clean diapers. I fold up the Porta Crib and slide it on top of the rest of the stuff, and then close up the tarp from the corners and tie it shut with twine. Then I seal it all with twine crisscrossed through the rear car windows, which will have to stay slightly open for the whole trip. Thank heavens it’s not raining. That would be a nightmare.
“Let’s go. I want to get out of here in case the landlords come home early. Assholes–if they’re not going to give me back the security deposit, I’ll show them destruction. Don’t get mad…get even.”
She sighs and starts walking slowly with the baby–who has now dozed off–to the car and gets in. She hasn’t said more than ten words to me since I started my painting project. She did giggle a little, which drives me crazy, but that’s her stock response to many things–a stupid giggle.
She nods yes.
“I’m gonna swing around to Ma’s house to say goodbye to everyone, okay? She’s having some people over.”
She shrugs. “Sure, I guess so.”
“You don’t want to drop in on your parents?”
She shakes her head. “Nah,” she says, “already said goodbye to them.”
“Okay.” I’m relieved, because her parents hate me, and I hate them. When Mikki was born and I called my mother-in-law from the hospital, her response was, “No, that’s impossible! It’s too soon.” And then she hung up on me.
That woman should kiss my ass for marrying her pregnant daughter. I begged Ma for abortion money when Raylene told me. A guy in the navy knew a doctor in Boston who was doing abortions for all the service people who needed one, but it was really expensive, a few hundred dollars, because he was risking a lot to do it. There was no way I could come up with that kind of money on my own. “I don’t love this girl,” I pleaded. “It was only a one-night stand. I’m only nineteen!”
Ma slapped me across the face, something she hadn’t done for a few years. “You’re a good Catholic,” she said. “You’ll marry the girl and raise that baby a Catholic if you know what’s good for you.” Raylene was Protestant, but she agreed to sign the papers with the church, promising to have any kids we had baptized and raised Catholics. I had a feeling that signature wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. She would have agreed to anything, because the sucker, me, was marrying her. So, we got married when she was two months’ pregnant. It was the night of the eastern states’ blackout–November 9, 1965–no lights from New Jersey all the way up through Maine and Ontario. I really thought we were being attacked by the Commies or UFOs, but, man, the church was beautiful, all candlelit and shimmery, and the moon was full with no clouds in the sky. Would have been great if I was in love with my bride. Now my buddies all tell me that blackout was a bad omen and I should have called the wedding off.
I ease the car slowly away from the curb, cautious, hoping nothing shifts from the roof or in the back. Mikki falls into a deeper sleep, dry now and calmed by the hum of the motor, and she starts doing that little baby snore that breaks my heart, it’s so sweet. Thank God for that baby. Everything seems to be holding steady, so I inch out to the corner, and then I get the confidence to drive a little faster. As we leave there for the last time, I turn toward the house to give it one last look before we pull away for good. “Assholes,” I say out loud. “Fuckin’ mess with me–they’ll be sorry.”
Raylene giggles again.
The landlords had been awful people right from the beginning. A married couple in their fifties, they lived on the second floor of the house, and when we first moved in, I noticed right away that when Raylene and I were out, they were coming inside the apartment, messing around in drawers and looking through our things. I’m a Scorpio. I don’t take that shit from anybody. So I set traps for them, stringing almost invisible nylon cording at knee height to trip them up, placing ashes from cigarette butts in places where, if they disturbed them by opening drawers, I’d be able to tell right away. The first time I did it, the nylon cord was broken when we got home, so I knew they’d been inside. Seems like one of them tripped and knocked a glass off the kitchen counter. There was some glass on the floor they didn’t clean up. I hope they cut themselves, the jerks. Before I changed the locks, which I did, I recorded every incidence of their trespassing, and the incidents became less and less frequent after they realized I was setting traps. After the locksmith came, the landlords complained that they needed a key. I kept telling them I forgot to have one made. I hated them, but I decided it was better to stay there and be aware of their behavior than to have to break the lease and move to another place where the same thing might happen all over again.
“I’ll miss living by the ocean,” Raylene says. Her voice sounds like she might be getting ready to cry.
“Yeah, me too, I guess.”
We both loved living right on the beach, and this apartment was cheap enough to afford on my navy salary and close enough to the base that I didn’t have to be driving far. I always knew I’d get the jerk landlords back in the end, and when they refused to give back my one hundred dollar security deposit because of a “cracked” window in the bedroom, even though that window had been cracked when we moved in, that sealed the deal. And now we’re leaving the house–no forwarding address provided–while the landlords are away for the weekend visiting their kids on the Cape, with every room but the bedroom painted the darkest black I could find. And I used high-gloss enamel, the hardest thing to cover. Don’t get mad, get even. Ma might actually approve of that.
Soon the baby and Raylene are dozing, and my mind wanders to our new life. As long as I can remember, every time I think I’m about to get what I want, something messes up, and then everything goes haywire. Some of my best early memories are sitting around on the couch with my father, sharing a big bowl of popcorn and watching football. He was really into it, taught me all about the game, and I loved it, so my dream was to grow up and be a quarterback in the NFL. But my dad died when I was eight. When I knelt at his casket, I whispered to him, Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll be a quarterback when I grow up, and you’ll watch me from heaven. I was good at sports. I played quarterback on my high school team starting as a freshman, but then one night I decided to go for a pickup basketball game–everyone always tried to get me to play basketball, because I’ve been six foot two since the eighth grade–but I slipped on the gym floor, and when I came down, a big guy fell on top of me, crashing down on my knee and breaking my knee cap, tearing the quadriceps tendon. Ma yelled at me in the ER–I thought she was going to slap me across the head, but a nurse walked in and saved the day. But that was the end of my dream. Without sports, school was like a prison sentence, so I lied about my age and tried to enlist in the marines the day after my sixteenth birthday. Vietnam wasn’t going great, but I was convinced I could go over there and bust ass, really make a difference.
I would have done just about anything to get out of school–I’ve always sucked at it, and Ma has reminded me all my life I’m dumb. I look at a bunch of numbers or letters, and they just look like a mess of gibberish. The numbers switch places, and for the life of me, I can’t remember how letters go on a page to spell words. The bottom line is that I have no patience for schoolwork, but I knew I would be great as a marine. And I love my country.
The problem was that Ma caught wind of it, probably from my big-mouth older sister, and she was one of those mothers who stood with her arms crossed in the doorway of the recruiting office, screaming her head off about how I was underage and stupid. He didn’t even graduate high school, she yelled, barely sixteen, and I have six daughters and him, only one son, and his father died, and he’s too dumb to go in the Service; he’ll probably shoot the Americans and save the gooks. The marine recruiters slapped me on the back of the head and threw me out.
So I showed her–the day I turned seventeen I enlisted in the navy reserve. Our family was all navy and marines, for generations. The navy took me right away, and she couldn’t do a thing about it. The ironic thing is that I never saw battle–I went in there gunning for bear, all set to be stationed with the navy SEALs in the Mekong Delta, direct combat with the Viet Cong–but they sent me twenty miles away, to the naval air station outside of Boston, to be a firefighter, because I happened to mention that a lot of relatives were firefighters. I never even had to go to Nam. Never got within eight thousand miles of it.
Instead, the navy gave me the responsibility for all of those jets coming in from their trial flights–I was trained to watch carefully to make sure they didn’t overshoot, that there were no problems with the landing gear, standing there in full fire regalia with the power hose in my hand…Every so often one of them would get into trouble, and I loved that, helping them, making sure I saved a life and an aircraft. It’s a really good feeling, and I was damn good at the job. And I’m so lucky I got out of this war without a scratch. I didn’t know it at the beginning, but I know it now.
So after my hitch in the navy, I have no doubt that being a firefighter is my passion. I’m one of those people who jump in when someone’s in danger–I don’t even think about it. Someone drowning, someone being beaten up–my mind switches into autopilot, and I do what I have to do. Firefighting is a great way for me to do this all the time. And it doesn’t require algebra or spelling. So anyway, after my discharge, I go take the firefighter test–my uncle the fire captain is proud of me and telling me that if I pass, I’m set for life, I’ll always have a job. I take the damn testwhich is really hard for me, taking testsstudy hard for it, grind it out, sweat over it; my blood pressure must have gone up to 200. I leave there feeling pretty good, thinking I did okay, the studying helped. I’m on pins and needles for two weeks, and then? I get an official letter: “Report for duty at Police Headquarters in Washington, DC, on Thursday, July fourteenth, eight a.m. sharp.”
Say what? For duty? Where? I take the letter back to the place where I took the test, go to the office, walk up to the desk where the broad with that beehive hairdo is sitting, filing her bubblegum-pink nails, and I say, “Hey, there must be some mistake. I took the test for the Boston Metropolitan Commission FD. Why did I get this?”
She snaps her gum a couple times, flicks the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray, and looks up at me like I have some kind of disease. I even think I see her lip curl, but I’m not sure.
“Gimme that,” she orders.
I obey. She shuffles the paper back and forth, does a little grunt, reads it front and back, takes a puff on the cigarette, and now the ash plops down on the desk, and she brushes it off with the back of her hand, wipes it on my letter.
“No,” she says, snapping her gum.
“No, you took the test for the DC Metropolitan Police. You gotta report for duty on the fourteenth of July. Says it right here.” She points to the letter with the tip of her fingernail.
“You mean I took the wrong test?” I wonder how she can smoke and chew gum at the same time.
“No, honey, only if you didn’t want to be a cop.”
“I wanted to be a fireman. In Boston.”
Now she gets this wicked smile on her face, like I’m so stupid I’m funny. She is so amused it makes her cough, and she can’t even look me in the eye. I look away, over at the window, and I see this fly that keeps crashing against the glass, like it really wants to be out of there, but it doesn’t realize this is a window, not a door. I relate to that fly.
“Then you took the wrong test.” She snaps her gum, a loud exclamation point.
I stand there, shuffling back and forth from right to left. She still has my papers in her hand, kind of holding them in front of her but just out of my reach. I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.
“You okay?” Now it’s like I’m wasting her valuable time, and she’s done with it all. She looks down at the cigarette, snaps her gum again, and then takes the cigarette into her mouth. The smile has faded, and I notice a line of vertical wrinkles that jump into place above her top lip every time she takes a drag on the cigarette. “Need anything else? All set then?”
“Um, no, not really.”
She raises an eyebrow. “What do you want me to do?”
“When is the next fire test for Boston?”
She shrugs. “No idea,” she says. “Usually they have them every six months to a year–depends on how many people pass. Maybe December?”
“Not last December, hon.” She makes a little grimace, and the cigarette is vertical, hanging down straight from her red lips but staying there, defying gravity.
“Jesus,” I say, trying to make it under my breath but not succeeding. “What am I gonna do?”
“Well, I’d say you either report for work in DC, or maybe McDonald’s is looking for a burger flipper.” She gives me a look that makes me feel naked. “How am I supposed to know what you’re gonna do?” She holds the cigarette out with her other hand and kind of shakes her head from side to side like she can’t believe she’s having this conversation, but I can’t help noticing that her hair doesn’t move at all.
“Oh, right, yeah,” I say, grabbing the papers out of her hand. She rubs her arm as if the papers were very heavy and she’s got a knot in her muscle. “Sorry to bother you.”
“Have a nice life, Officer!” she chirps, snapping her gum, as I walk toward the door.
© 2018 by Rebecca Marks