An excerpt from Chapter 1

Inside the Sugar Blush House




    I first met Janey Robbins about three months ago when she hired me for a painting job. Interiors only. I don’t do exteriors, mostly because I hate climbing ladders. Inside, you usually don’t need a ladder. You can get away with roller extenders and stilts and step stools. When I need a ladder, like for a stairwell or a foyer, I hire a kid. Kids don’t mind climbing ladders. Me? I’m afraid of heights. Did I mention that?

    Anyway, Janey didn’t actually hire me. Iris Jefferson hired me. Iris Jefferson works for Janey. Iris Jefferson was born in a town in Mississippi named Blue Pickum. She grew up in a shithole cabin with no indoor plumbing. Iris never knew her father. Her mother never hung around Blue Pickum that much, either. Iris was raised by her grandmother. When she was seven years old, Iris was playing in the schoolyard when the school janitor tried to fondle her. The janitor was a creepy guy named Elmo Washington. He was skinny as a maypole, very bald and missing some teeth. Iris told me he was clearly mentally challenged and usually drunk. Iris, who was a big kid even at seven, bit Elmo in the hand and ran home from school. She told Gram Jefferson what happened. Gram Jefferson took Iris by the hand and led her back to school.

    “What happened when you got there?” I asked.

    “My grandmother found Elmo down in the boiler room of the school. She grabbed a wrench and beat him with it. Elmo was so drunk he never saw it coming. She opened Elmo’s head up, right there in the boiler room of the school.”

    Iris Jefferson smiled when she told me that story. The smile told me that nobody fucks with the Jeffersons of Blue Pickum, Mississippi.

    Iris Jefferson was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She was also the first member of her family to graduate from college. She majored in literature at the University of Mississippi. After graduating from Ole Miss, Iris enrolled in law school at Georgetown University. That’s where Janey Robbins found her. Janey went to Georgetown to speak before the African-American Student Union. Iris Jefferson was the vice president of the union and responsible for arranging the event. At the end of her speech, Janey was introduced to Iris by one of the law professors. Janey had an opening on her staff and desperately needed a black face. Her husband, Abe, had been insisting on it for months.

    The next day, Janey Robbins called Iris Jefferson and asked her to join the staff of the First Lady.

   “You’ll love the work,” Janey told Iris. “Lots of travel, you’ll meet interesting people, eat in good restaurants and you’ll never have to wait for a plane.” Iris Jefferson had never been on an airplane in her life. They aren’t exactly a common sight in Blue Pickum. To get to Georgetown, she had taken the bus up to Washington from Mississippi. It took sixteen hours and she was carsick the whole way. Iris had never been in an airport terminal in her life, either. She didn’t know airplanes were sometimes late. It had never occurred to her to think about why airplanes might be late.

    “But my studies. . .I really do want my law degree . .” Iris started to say.

    There was a pause on the line. Iris could tell that Janey had a temper and was trying to suppress it at the moment.

    Finally, Janey spoke.

    “Honey,” she said, “the First Lady doesn’t need this shit. If you don’t want the job, I’ll find somebody else.”

    Iris decided she could take a year or two off from law school. After all, White House jobs aren’t offered to overweight black women from Blue Pickum, Mississippi, every day.

    Iris actually enjoyed the work. Janey always took her along when she traveled and made sure she was by her side when the photographers showed up. At first, Iris felt used: she knew she was a token black and resented Janey’s efforts to showcase her. But Iris soon learned to look past the little indignities. She lost herself in her work and became a much-valued member of the Robbins administration.

    Sometimes she wrote speeches for Janey, sometimes she answered her mail. Occasionally, she would lead small tours for V.I.P.’s around the White House. She helped organize Janey’s schedule as well as her wardrobe. Janey found out that Iris had a good eye for style and color and when Iris started suggesting certain outfits for certain events, Janey found herself agreeing with Iris’s ideas. When the women’s magazines started noticing Janey’s taste in clothes, Iris Jefferson’s opinions around the East Wing started carrying more weight.

    By the time I met Iris Jefferson, she was a very powerful figure in the White House. After all, she had just been entrusted with what Janey Robbins told her would be the most important domestic program of her husband’s career.

    Painting the White House.

* * *

    Of course, Iris Jefferson would not be painting the White House. That would be my job. I became a house painter about twenty years ago, right after I got out of college. Did I mention that I have a college degree? I do, in linguistic anthropology. Really, no kidding. Remind me to relate to you my theories about the evolution of language. Anyway, you get out of George Washington University with a degree in linguistic anthropology and what do you do next? Become a linguistic anthropologist? Me? I became a house painter. My first job was with a painting crew headed by a guy named Blackie. We did mostly new construction, which involved spraying watered-down builder’s paint onto fresh drywall. First, the builder would tell Blackie how much to water down the paint and then Blackie would water it down even more. I worked for Blackie for maybe a year and learned a lot about the painting business.

    Next, I worked for a guy named Whitey. I’m not making this up. You’d be surprised how many guys in the house painting business are named either Blackie or Whitey.

    Whitey watered down the paint, too.

    In the meantime, I got married. My wife’s name was Nancy and she was studying to be a linguistic anthropologist, too. I met her in college. We took a lot of the same courses together and by the time we were seniors we were living together. We had a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a converted townhouse on N Street in Georgetown. Nancy had long red hair that reached down to her ass. She was slim and small-breasted and she had really long legs and she liked to wear tight turtleneck sweaters and miniskirts, which were just going out of style at the time. Nancy could really screw. I remember studying for finals and trying to keep my mind on linguistic anthropology and all Nancy wants to do is bang. Maybe that’s why I did poorly on my finals that year and couldn’t get into graduate school. I was screwing when I was supposed to be studying. Anyway, Nancy was accepted to graduate school. Don’t ask me how. She didn’t study any more than I did.

    So Nancy is in graduate school and I’m working as a house painter and supporting us. One night we come up with the goofy idea that we should get married, so we drove into the Maryland countryside and looked for a justice of the peace who is open. We find a JP somewhere out near Annapolis. He marries us and says he is delighted to do so because out near Annapolis there isn’t much marriage work. Most of his time is taken up setting bail for Naval Academy midshipmen who are picked up drunk and disorderly on weekend furloughs.

    We are married for about nine months, living in our little apartment on N Street. She studies linguistic anthropology and I am working for Blackie and then Whitey. One day I came home early from a job and walk in on Nancy screwing some guy. I did mention that she likes to screw, didn’t I?

    I walk in on them just like the guy walks in on his unfaithful wife in the movies. You know, I climb up the steps and hear grunts and gasps, then I open the door and see clothes flung all over the apartment. I see the bedroom door open, and then I see my wife humping some guy. I don’t know what to say. I just stand there and stare for a couple of minutes. Then, I say, “Pardon me.”

    Pardon me?

    Well, what would you have said?

    The guy climbs down off of Nancy and tells me his name is Franklin Dewey and he is really sorry I caught him screwing my wife. He tells me this as he puts on his pants. He has very thick wire-framed glasses, which he wore during sex. Nancy just sits in bed and smokes a cigarette. She is very sexy, sitting there naked, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood for sex at that moment. Franklin tells me he met Nancy at school. He is studying linguistic anthropology as well. Franklin says he totally disagrees with Chandra Srikakulam, who happens to be the guru of linguistic anthropology. He insists to me that the elements of modern language have nothing to do with biological determination, that syntax and phonemes are not genetically transmitted.

    “Language is totally determined by environment,” Franklin asserts to me while he is zipping up his fly. “I think you’ll see some new data coming out soon. There are some people up at Harvard doing marvelous work in the Australian Outback with aboriginal tribes. I think they intend to disprove much of what Srikakulam has been saying.”

    I want to disagree with him (the balls he has. . . disputing what Dr. Chandra says!), but I wasn’t in an argumentative mood. Finally, the jerk leaves the apartment. Nancy asks me what I want to do now. I tell her I want a divorce. She says OK. She hires a cheap lawyer and two months later we’re divorced. We split our bank account down the middle and I come out with about $1,600. I take $1,000 and make a down payment on an old Chevy cargo van. I take the other $600 and buy brushes, rollers and drop cloths. Then, I quit Whitey’s crew. The first house I paint on my own is out in Chevy Chase. The house is owned by Franklin’s parents. Nancy helped me get the job. After that job, Franklin’s parents recommend me to some of their friends, and pretty soon I’ve got a nice little house painting business going on in the Maryland suburbs.

    The years pass. My business does well, but I don’t want it to grow too big. I want to be a painter, not a painting contractor. I don’t want to have to water down paint in order to make a buck. I usually work alone, unless I do a house that has high ceilings. Then, I hire a kid to work up on the ladder.

    A few months ago I paint a big old Victorian owned by Hector and Julia Ramirez. Hector Ramirez is originally from Costa Rica and he is very rich. Oil and gas drilling. I think he looks like Desi Arnaz. His wife is from Manchester, New Hampshire. She was born into wealth—I believe her parents own the Red Rooster hotel chain. Anyway, she looks more like Ethel than Lucy. Hector and Julia give a lot of parties and they raise a lot of money for Democrats. Two years ago, they raised $20 million for Abe Robbins. That helped Abe win election as president. To show his appreciation, Abe appointed Hector ambassador to Costa Rica, but Hector and Julia only spent a year down there. Julia always hated the tropics. When they return from Costa Rica, Julia hires me to paint their house. I do a straight job: I don’t water down the paint and I’m really careful not to slop up the terra cotta tiles on the floor of the solarium. Julia and Hector just love the job I do on the old Victorian. Julia tells Janey Robbins that she just had her house painted and she should come over and see it. Janey does. She loves it, too.

    A few weeks later, the phone rings and it’s Iris Jefferson telling me that the First Lady of the United States wants me to paint the White House.