Just before noon she hears Raymond, the painter, calling from the bedroom. Come here, please, missus, he says.
She finds him standing on a ladder in the middle of the room. He has spread tarpaulins over the floor and moved the bed and other furniture to one side of the room, under the windows. He has removed his shirt and is leaning back on the ladder, flexing the muscles in his shoulders as he runs a roller across the ceiling. She thinks she has never seen hair so black as Raymond’s.
Aren’t you cold? she says. She wears a tailored wool jacket over a white silk blouse.
No, he says. I’m working.
Through the window, she looks across the leafless treetops in the ravine to a band of steel-blue water on the horizon. Sunlight pulses behind the slate grey sky like candlelight through ice. She thinks of the Brazilian natives living on her husband’s gold-mining property. She wonders if homeless people in the city sleep in the ravine in winter.
Raymond reaches down from the ladder. In his fingers, he holds a couple of paint chips. You look at these, please, he says.
She moves closer to examine the paint chips. Raymond has long fingers. She can see the half moons of his cuticles. Her husband, by contrast, bites his nails incessantly. They’ve become jagged and tattered, like the husks of nuts discarded by squirrels. For a labourer, Raymond takes good care of himself. She imagines his fingers against her skin.
You like these colours? he says.
I can’t see them clearly, she says.
Raymond climbs down from the ladder. He leans with the paint chips into the cold pool of daylight that washes across the bed under the window.
Which one do you like? she says.
Her husband often says that she can’t make up her mind. She says it doesn’t matter what she thinks: he insists on getting his own way, whether they agree or not.
When she and her husband first met, they disagreed all the time. That’s what attracted them to each other. They enjoyed arguing. At law school, she learned how to split hairs, but she believed in compromise. Her husband believed in victory. Now she defers to him and takes comfort in the wisdom of her discretion. She prefers not to risk the security of her marriage to win an argument about lawn furniture or dry cleaning. She doesn’t mind. It’s his money.
She leans forward to study the paint chips in Raymond’s hand, two different shades of carmine. Take off your jacket, he says.
I beg your pardon? she says.
Your jacket, Raymond says. Take it off.
He spreads the black jacket on the bed and holds the paint chips over it. The colours deepen. Which one you like now? he says. You decide, she says. She studies his black hair and resists an urge to adjust it with her fingertips where it brushes his ear.
She and her husband met in New Haven. She was visiting her boyfriend at the time, a senior at Yale, majoring in archaeology, learning Turkish. She was shopping in a sports store called Denali for his birthday present. She’d taken a Patagonia jacket from its hanger to examine the lining. A man standing beside her said, He won’t like that. She thought he was a sales clerk. She told him that she didn’t need his help. She looked at him more closely. He had dark hair that spilled from under a worn baseball cap. He looked at her with mischievous brown eyes. His teeth were crooked, but in a good way. When he smiled, he looked about thirteen. With one glance, she could tell that he would make a lot of money. I’ll show you what to get, he said. He held up a North Face jacket. Give him this, he said. He’ll like it. She never found out if her boyfriend liked it or not. She gave it to him the next day and then told him that she’d met another man.
Her husband seemed confident, level-headed, intelligent, single-minded and decisive. He’d sailed through the turbulence of his adolescence unruffled by the currents of popular fashion. He didn’t play sports. He never wanted a car. He didn’t drink. His clothes were functional. He taught himself to play the slide guitar. He once played with Emmylou Harris, but she never worried that he might abandon himself in a fit of middle-aged lunacy to his music. He played the guitar with purpose. With passion, he made money.
After law school, she went to work with the firm where she’d articled, but when their first child was born, she took a leave of absence and never went back. She’d never regarded herself as a lawyer, and by then her husband was making so much money that he needed her to manage their wealth. It was a much more demanding task than she’d expected.
Your husband travels, says Raymond.
A lot, she says. Thirty weeks a year. Like the Rolling Stones.
Raymond’s eyes narrow.
On tour, she says. The Rolling Stones tour for thirty weeks a year.
Do they? Raymond says.
The last time her husband came home from a trip, he said he felt unappreciated. No wonder, she said. In business, you’re the star. At home, you’re just my husband. What do you want me to do? she said. You figure it out, her husband said. Appreciation’s not part of my job description, she said. The next day, he went away again. It was like loving God, she thought. Most of the time, she had to remind herself that he existed.
You don’t go with him? Raymond says.
Sometimes, she says. But I feel anxious when we travel.
You are afraid of flying?
I’m afraid of flying with my husband.
Her husband believed in the power of the intellect. He took offence at yes-men and martinets who followed orders without question and imposed their authority on others without reason. He accused airline clerks, immigration officers and security inspectors of squandering their humanity. He couldn’t hide his contempt. They saw how he felt and antagonized him. Immigration officers told him to remove his shoes, then took him away to inspect his underpants. Sometimes he missed his flight. He said he’d buy his own airplane. Then they could avoid these encounters.
When we travel together, she says, I take medication.
Raymond picks up the paint chips from the bed. You make up your mind, please, he says.
She feels unsettled by his insistence. She touches him lightly on the wrist. A mist of dark hair covers a faded blue tattoo on his forearm. He holds the chips higher. He studies her face, waiting for an answer. I’ll think about it, she says.
That night her husband called from Brazil. He said he was having trouble persuading the natives to move from his property. She said she was having trouble choosing the right colour of paint for the walls. Her husband told her to take a digital photograph of the two chips and send it to him by email. I’ll decide, he said.
Your husband is a smart man, Raymond says the next day when she shows him the colour that he has selected.
Why do you think so? she says.
Smart men get rich, he says.
Then my husband is very smart.
Her husband grew up with a capacity for hard work and a singular passion for making money, but he seldom had fun without purpose. He never learned to ride a bicycle, never owned a soccer ball or a skateboard, never received an allowance. If he needed money, he took a loan from his father, then repaid it, with interest, by working around the house. Her husband paid his own way through school and inherited nothing from his father except his webbed toes. Now her husband’s wealth far exceeds his father’s, but he gets angry when he looks at his feet.
I am not so smart, Raymond says.
You make money, she says.
I make more, he says, before I come to America.
Why did you stop?
I paint what I see, Raymond says, not what people tell me to see.
It’s hard to make a living that way.
I can’t live the other way, he says. That’s why I stop.
When her husband called again that night, he said, Tell the painter to do three coats, not two. And make sure he paints thick over thin. The walls have to absorb our vision, he said. What does that mean? she said. He’ll know, he said. And you think you know better than he does how to paint a room? she said. She wondered later why she would risk an argument with her husband to defend the integrity of a painter. Tell him he won’t get paid until you’re satisfied, her husband said.
Today she passes along her husband’s instructions. Raymond just shrugs. I do what I’m told, he says.
She notices a small canvas leaning against a ladder in the corner of the room. For your portrait, he says.
Perhaps, she says. I’ll ask my husband.
When she talked to her husband again, she told him he was right. Raymond is an artist, she said. He used to paint portraits. You should sit for him, her husband said.
The next day when he calls her to the bedroom, Raymond gestures toward the bed. He has used a ladder to improvise an easel and propped the rectangular canvas on one of the rungs. My husband says it’s all right, she says.
I thought he would, Raymond says.
She looks again at the canvas. It seems small for a portrait, she says.
I paint you from the neck up, Raymond says.
She feels disappointed.
He gestures toward the bed. Sit, he says.
I feel foolish, she says.
Whatever you say, he says. Sit.
She sits on the edge of the bed. She’s wearing a black skirt and a mauve silk blouse. Raymond put his hands on her shoulders and pushes them back. Pressing two fingers against her jaw, he turns her head to the left. His touch is gentle. She fears that he’ll tell her to relax. She gets anxious when people tell her to relax. I show you what to do, Raymond says. He lifts her chin. She can feel the tension leaving her body. He touches her forehead. He runs his fingers through her hair. He holds up his right hand.
Look up, he says.
She looks at his hand. He stares at her.
Aren’t you going to begin? she says.
I already have, he says.
He unfastens the top three buttons of her blouse.
He runs his hands over her face. She can feel the warmth of his skin. She wants him to kiss her. She wants to lean back and draw him forward onto the bed. The fabric of her blouse presses against her breasts. He stands back. All right, he says. You go now.
For the rest of the day she makes herself busy. She makes phone calls, answers letters, sends emails, pays bills, thinks about her children at their schools. She thinks all day about Raymond upstairs. She waits to hear his voice calling her. Late in the afternoon she hears him leave through the front door. She rushes upstairs to the bedroom. He’s prepared two of the three walls with a rough plaster surface. He hasn’t started the ceiling. The canvas isn’t in the room. She feels relieved. He will have to come back.
He can’t afford a bigger canvas, she told her husband when he called that night.
Tell him I’ll pay for a bigger one, he said. The bigger, the better.
Art by the yard, she said.
She spends the next couple of days keeping appointments and attending meetings around the city. When she finally sees Raymond again, she tells him of her husband’s offer. I don’t need a bigger canvas, Raymond says. But he’ll buy it for you, she says. Raymond shrugs. I paint what I see, he says.
In the middle of the following week, her husband called from his hotel. The natives had agreed to leave the property, he said. We can proceed with the mine. Her husband’s company would help them to find housing and provide them with jobs and medical care. They’ve never lived in houses, he said. They should be grateful, she said. They don’t seem grateful, he said.
She told her husband that Raymond had turned down his offer of a bigger canvas. Screw him, her husband said. If he doesn’t want it, tell him I have better things to do with my money.
When she tells Raymond, he laughs. Your husband is maybe too smart, he says. He gets what he wants, she says.
Raymond finishes painting the bedroom the day before her husband comes home, moves all the furniture back into place and props her portrait on the dresser. It looks as if he has dashed it off in a few minutes. Her face seems expressionless. Her eyes look dead. She’s seen more flattering likenesses in her passport. But her husband loves it. He’s a world-class painter, he says. He tells her to have the portrait framed. We’ll put it on the wall, he says, beside the bed.
That night they have sex in their new bed. Her husband makes love the way he dresses, functional but without exuberance. He moves inside of her with the precision of a cash card in an automated teller. When he finishes, he rolls away from her and takes a deep breath. God is in the house! he says.
When she wakes up in the morning, she looks at the ceiling. She can see shapes in the swirls of paint, like a body in the clouds. She stares more intently and sees herself, unclothed, her spine arched, head thrown back to release her mane of dark ecstatic hair. She inhales and feels dizzy.
Do you see that? she says.
That’s the way I told him to do it, her husband says. Three coats.
Bruce McDougall has worked in Toronto, the city where he was born, as an airport attendant, bouncer, taxi driver, social worker and newspaper reporter. His short-story collection, Every Minute is a Suicide, was published in 2014 and won an IPPY Award. His non-fiction novel, The Last Hockey Game, was also published that year and was a finalist for a Toronto Book Award. His novel, The Lizards of Palm Beach, was published in January 2021 by Owl Canyon Press, and another collection of his short stories called Urban Disturbances was published in March 2021 by The Porcupine’s Quill. It, too, won an IPPY. He graduated from Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon, and attended the University of Toronto Law School.