A BLOB OF TERRA COTTA by Dene Hellman

Handymen we are not, my daughter and I. There was a time when we lived in households that included men — men who wore “I will take care of it” faces whenever certain household matters came to their attention. That time has gone with the proverbial wind.

 

After we joined forces and began sharing a home, my daughter took up yard work and did quite well once she understood that lawnmowers need oil and periodic sharpening. However, her face never took on the sanctified expression worn by neighborhood males when they rode up and down their yards on important looking machines that would have scared us to death.

 

I, myself, have been known to test the advertising of a chain that claims to be made up of “helpful hardware men” and am grateful for advice received.”

 

Certain big box stores are also reputed to carry everything connected with home maintenance and to do so at reasonable prices and with a degree of clarity in making explanations. We got excited when we read about a paint sale in the Sunday newspaper and headed toward one of them on the next weekend.

 

When we moved into our shared household a couple of years ago, we bought copious amounts of paint from that store and had painted every wall in sight. We didn’t do it particularly well but knew we had only ourselves to blame.

 

No, this paint job we had in mind was dedicated to the visual improvement of the ugly cement patio that extends 18 feet from our back door into the back yard. Nothing had ever been done to it. Somebody had poured the slab and then gone away. For forty years thereafter, successive households have stood on it to grill their hamburgers and sat on it to drink their beer and never thought about how far it fell short in aesthetic appeal.

WE, however, were determined to make changes. We might not have the skills or budget or time to install little walls and planters worthy of a shelter magazine layout, but begorra, we could make a cosmetic difference by covering the cement slab in a more appealing color. For weeks, we pored over a tri-fold brochure that presented dozens of choices. We settled, at last, on one of the terra cottas.

 

Fairly certain that dealing with a concrete slab wasn’t as simple as just buying a can of paint and a roller, we were pretty sure there would be an assigned specialist or two who could tell us what else was involved.

 

Wrong. Oh so wrong. The big box’s paint department was quiet with one lone employee in sight and she was dealing with a fortyish Asian man who wasn’t happy. We went to the shelves and found a gallon can labeled “cement paint and stain.” When the woman was free, we put it and our brochure on the counter, pointed to the terra cotta sample, and said, “We need this color. What’s involved in applying it?”

 

She looked bewildered. My guess is that her training for the paint department had mostly been about mixing colors. There was a machine that had to be fed with so much of this and so much of that, then set to whirring and shrieking until the required color was created. A tiny swath of it would be dabbed on the lid of the paint can and the customer sent off to the checkout counters to pay.

 

Almost timidly, she said, “What do you want to paint?” We told her and she looked sad and somewhat doubtful, as well as defensive. The Asian man had come back and was thrusting several large cans at her. He did not raise his voice but his demeanor was of someone who would raise his voice if he were less civilized by nature and breeding. The woman left us, took his paint can, and addressed herself to the paint mixing device while my daughter and I looked at one another with “HUH?” showing on our faces.

 

Someone touched my elbow and I turned. It was the Asian man and his expression was that of an instructor. Not that of a friendly neighbor seeking to help. Not that of a macho male eager to share his expertise. An instructor. His accent was heavy but his enunciation clear. His stature was small but he carried himself as if he was six feet tall. He exuded self confidence.

 

“Not enough,” he said, tapping our can of paint. “One year ago, I painted cement with this alone and now, one year later, it is all peeling off. Nobody told me I needed to clean very well and nobody told me i needed to first paint with a primer. Now I have to do it all over. You do not want that to happen.”

 

Clean?”  I asked.

 

He led me down an aisle and pointed to cans of degreasing/cleaning solution. He lifted one down from the shelf and put it in my hands.

 

“You also need a primer,” he said, and I found myself holding one of those, too.

 

I thanked him profusely for his advice and assistance, then went back to the counter where I had left the paint.

 

The clerk came back and carried our can of paint away to the maw of the mixer. It occurred to me that we would need to apply the paint with something  — rollers, no doubt — and I walked over to a wall that presented whole shelves of rollers, rollers of different materials, rollers of varying prices. I selected two and, before I could turn to take them back to the counter, the Asian man was at my elbow, removing them from my hands. Removing them? Yes, it was so. Very firmly, he put them back into their little roller cradles.

 

Then another roller was put into my hand. “For the paint,” he said. Then he pulled two rollers from a bin at the other end of the display. “Cheap,” he said. “For the primer.”

 

Again, I profusely thanked him for his assistance and walked back to our growing collection of supplies where my daughter stood, having watched the scenario, with a big grin on her face. Together we saw our adviser march confidently out of the paint department, carrying his own supplies for painting cement. He didn’t look back, not at the paint clerk who must have been glad to see him go or at us, two people whose gratitude must have stuck out all over us.

 

Daughter and I have played a guessing game about the identity of the man. She thinks he’s a medical person who is used to giving life and death directions. My theory leans toward him being a researcher at some institute of higher learning who must verify all results. There is a story there, somewhere, but we’ll never know what it is.

 

For now, our cleaner/degreaser, our primer, our rollers, and our can of cement paint with a blob of terra cotta on the lid, rest beside the patio doors that open to the cement slab. One of these days we’ll work up our courage and begin the project.

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