Painting the Room Red
By Lea Baker
Louie was standing on the slick trunk of the fallen tree, gripping Doreen’s screen door for balance, when Brena opened the front door.
“I’m not a stranger.”
Water from the gutters overflowed onto Louie’s hair. He was already soaked from crossing the street in the storm. He brushed soggy leaves from his crown and tried to step forward off of the tree trunk. Brena barred his way with her large body, ready to slam the door.
Louie had helped Doreen replace that very door years ago when Brena’s dirty-drunk-mama was taken to jail for laying in the road, hoping to get run over. Once she was in custody she was connected to several burglaries in the area. The burglaries, plus the drunkenness, plus the drug convictions, and one recorded incident of prostitution, equaled prison time. Doreen, Brena’s grandmother, didn’t just change the locks, she changed the whole door. Louie had called the police when the girl was laying in the road, so he felt that changing the door was the least he could do for Doreen to make sure they stayed friends.
“What’s in your hands?”
“In my hands.”
Louie heard something wet fall to the floor as Brena held up both hands. She had been painting the living room red when the oak tree fell, taking out the deck and the power line. Louie had seen it from his window across the street and had decided to check on Doreen.
While Brena’s hands were up Louie launched off the tree and pushed his way into the house, head first.
An owl watched from a nearby pine as Louie barreled past Brena, then turned back to its hollow to wait out the rain.
Lightning flashed. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi. Thunder.
Louie now stood behind Brena who was still staring out the door at the storm.
“It’s five miles away.”
Louie quickly took stock of the small mobile home. The kitchen was lined up across from the couch, a small bathroom shared space with stacked laundry machines off the hallway, and two bedrooms made up the rear. Nothing was out of the ordinary, excluding the red paint splotching the living room wall.
Louie had been living across from Doreen for four decades and was confident he could make his way through the house, even in the dark, if it wasn’t for the gargantuan girl who had now turned hostilely to face him.
“Where’s your Nana?”
Doreen had barely finished raising her dirty-drunk-daughter when she came to be in charge of Brena. She tried to treat Brena like an ordinary young girl, but failed in many ways and now just wanted her taken care of.
Every morning Doreen had Brena sit at a wooden arm chair in front of her vanity. She’d unlock her bedroom door with a key, usher Brena inside, and seat her before the beveled mirror. There she brushed Brena’s hair until it was soft and straight, carefully french braided it down the girls round neck, and fastened it with decorative ribbons. Doreen had a wicker basket with spools of ribbon and a pair of dull scissors. The ribbon were out-of-season leftovers from the craft shop she worked at. In August Brena often had snowflakes decorating her hair, in March the ribbons had jack-o-lanterns or black cats.
Whenever Doreen brushed Brena’s hair, the wild, large, impetus girl sat concrete still. It was Doreen’s serenest time of day; she’d tell stories that ended in religious maxims:
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Silence is golden.
Vanity is poverty.
The whole time she’d pretend Brena was listening, maybe even learning, even though she knew that wasn’t the case.
Doreen’s absence from the living room was worrying Louie, but he didn’t to show his concern to Brena. Instead he smiled at her and raised his hands, hoping she’d understand that he came in peace.
“I just want to check on Doreen.”
“Doreen,” Brena echoed, tilting her head to one side, and lifting her hands, which were covered in red paint.
Louie had just seen Brena the day before, naked and uprooting strawberry plants in Doreen’s garden. Her long braided hair draped over her breasts, and strawberry juice dripped down her bare arms.
Louie had known the girl was supposed to be interviewed by The Savior’s Home, an institution for slow girls a fifty-mile drive for away. It promised “moral guidance,” but most importantly, it would house Brena. Louie had known Doreen was counting on Brena being accepted.
When Louie saw the naked girl from his window he rushed to escort her inside.
“Let me help you find your dress, dear.”
But he was too late. Just as he reached out to escort Brena inside, the headmistress from The Savior’s Home parked. The lady stepped out of her car in time to see Brena tackle Louie to the ground for suggesting she clothe herself. The headmistress drew her shawl about her already covered body, got back in her car, and sped away. Doreen told Louie that the lady called soon after the incident to say Brena was a hopeless case (which he already knew) and that they would pray for her (which he was sure wouldn’t do much good since he’d been praying for her since she was born).
Brena would only sit still when Doreen was brushing her hair and reciting proverbs. She hated the hair brush. Brena’s body was tough and strong, but her head was soft and sensitive. Doreen insisted to anyone who would listen that Brena sat still out of obedience, but she knew better. Brena sat still because she feared feeling the bruised sting of her hair being pulled by the brush.
Whenever her hair was brushed Brena contemplated how to make Doreen stop. How to break the brush. Or crush the hands holding the brush. Or the head informing the hand that was holding the brush. When Nana finished brushing and braiding, Brena was usually in such a temper that she’d do something destructive:
Kill Dorothy, Doreen’s late dog.
Smash the porcelain plates that used to hang in the hallway.
Stomp on the eggs in the chicken coop.
Paint the “wave crest blue” living room “barn house red.”
During weekly confession Louie often asked to be forgiven for wishing Doreen had just drowned Brena in the lake as a child. According to locals, doing so would have rid the congregation of at least one evil.
One day, during a church service in which the pastor had asked Doreen to lead Brena to the front of the congregation, Brena went into a nervous fury and charged the deacons. The pastor had hoped to raise money for Doreen, who wanted to send Brena away for the summer to a camp, but Brena’s collision with the Johnson boys resulted in several injuries. The money went to help Mr. and Mrs. Johnson pay Bryan’s medical bills after needing to repair a torn meniscus. Doreen had stopped asking for local help after that, but her granddaughter had not stopped being the center of town talk.
“Your Nana, Brena. Where’s your Nana?”
Louie squinted in the dark shadows of the low-ceilinged living room to look at Brena. She was wearing a large green dress with sunflowers on it that had orange pasta sauce stains.
Lightning flashed. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi. Thunder.
It was early afternoon, but the room was nighttime dark, except for the moments of lightning. Not even the microwave clock face glowed because of the power outage.
Louie checked to make sure Brena didn’t seem skittish, then walked to the perpetually drawn blinds and opened them. Branches from the fallen tree pressed themselves against the windowpane. Behind the branches were dark clouds strewn with even darker clouds. Rain fell in a static clamor.
“Is there a flashlight?”
Louie surveyed the room. The surfaces were all cleared. Doreen kept them that way so that Brena didn’t have too many things in reach when she went into a rage.
While Louie was looking around, Brena retrieved the paint brush that was on the floor, walked to the wall by the TV where the opened paint can stood, dipped the brush into the paint up to its handle, and then walked towards Louie, who was about to check the kitchen cupboards.
Louie became nervous. The beautiful girl was strong because of her age and weight. He was weak because of his age and weight.
Brena’s hair was standing on end, wild and tangled. Louie noted that her hair was usually well brushed and braided.
On the morning of the storm Doreen had said to Brena, as always, “Let me brush your hair.”
“Let me brush your hair.”
Brena echoed the statement every morning. For the first time Doreen consented.
Doreen sat down in the wooden chair with a large sigh. She had been counting on The Savior’s Home.
While Doreen sat in the chair Brena stepped towards the vanity. Doreen anticipated that she would play with the ribbons or push items off the desk, but nothing more.
“You’re a creature of habit, Brena.”
Brena didn’t know what she had said, all she knew was that Doreen was in the wooden chair. The chair that caused pain.
Brena stared at the items on the vanity: Scissors for the ribbon, an organized pile of mail, an ornate letter opener, a rosary, a box of jewelry, and the hairbrush. She picked up the scissors and examined them, then put them back down. Next she held the ornate letter opener. She ran her finger against its blade and then replaced it where it had been. She reached to pick up the hair brush, then stopped.
Brena looked from the hair brush to the basket of ribbon, from the hair brush to the basket of ribbon. Then she looked from the hair brush to the hands on the armchair, the hairbrush to the hands on the armchair.
The more Brena looked at the hairbrush the angrier she became from the recollection of pain. Outside the rain was a gentle trickle. The hens had taken shelter in their coup and the wheel barrel wasn’t full yet. Brena picked up the hair brush and hurled it against the wall. Doreen opened her eyes, but didn’t move. Instead she watched as Brena picked up a spool of ribbon and then began to sit on her lap. Brena’s round pelvis crushed Doreen’s gentle thighs.
“You’re crushing me, dear.”
Brena leaned back, forcing Doreen into the chair. Brena glared once again from the hair brush, which was one the ground, to the hands that often employed it. In a fury she began to wind the old lady wrists to the chair’s arms. She unraveled and knotted an entire spool around one wrist, then the other. When she stood up tears were streaming down Nana’s face. Brena, in a rage, took another spool and began to wind Doreen’s torso to the chair.
“Stop, my child.”
When Doreen was properly tied, Brena patted the old lady’s head with her shovel-like hands.
“I’m going to die my child. Untie me. I’m going to die in this chair.”
“Die in this chair.”
Brena stormed out in a fit and found the red paint while tearing contents from the laundry room cupboard.
“I need to check on your Nana, Brena.”
Louie watched as Brena began to paint him with the brush. When Louie was coated down each arm with red paint Brena turned back to the wall.
Louie observed Brena as she swiped her paint brush from side to side on the wall in a trance-like state. He had picked up the original light blue color she was painting over from the local hardware store because he had seen a psychologist on television say it was supposed to be a calming color. He’d brought it to Doreen as a present, hoping it would stop some of the racket he could overhear all the way in his bedroom.
While Brena was occupied Louie hurried down the hall. He wished he could call the police, but had left his phone at home and he was sure Doreen’s landline was taken out by the tree.
At the end of the dark barren hallway were two doors. The one leading to Doreen’s room was wide open. Louie stepped inside. The blinds were still drawn.
Lighting flashed. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. Thunder.
The lightning exposed the room: made bed, bare night table, hung clock, knocked-over basket with sprawling ribbon spools, the wooden chair Brena sat in to have her hair brushed, and Doreen tied to the chair.
Louie flung the blinds open in Doreen’s room.
“A flashlight. Is there a flashlight somewhere?”
“Cut me loose, Louie. Cut me loose.”
Louie walked to the vanity and opened the drawers. No flashlight, but he did see the scissors.
Doreen’s breadth was weak. Louie felt the arm of the chair and noticed the strong ribbon wrapped around fragile wrists. Brena had tied the ribbon so tight that it cut into Doreen’s skin. Her hands were aching, swollen, and purple from pooled blood. It was good quality ribbon, thick and impossible to tear.
Louie tried to find a place to insert the scissors without cutting Doreen’s wrists.
Lightning. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. Thunder.
Louie sawed at the bottom of the chair’s arm, hoping to cut the ribbon from below, but he struggled to grip the scissors because of the wet paint dripping from his arms all the way to his hands. It was dark and the scissors were dull, Louie became desperate. He knew he was tearing at Doreen’s skin but he wanted to untie her. To set her loose. To see her released. To help her stand up from the chair.
The old woman groaned, whimpered, then let out a sharp scream.
Brena heard her Nana’s cry and came careening down the hall, the paint can and brush hugged to her chest. She stepped into the room, saw Louie holding the scissors, and saw her Nana’s lips quivering. The old hands may have hurt her with the hair brush, but those old lips kissed her cheeks and made her feel good. She loved those lips.
Brena looked from the scissors to her Nana’s trembling the lips, the scissors to the lips. Then she looked at the hands holding the scissors, covered in sanguine paint.
The clock over the vanity ticked.
Lightning. One Mississippi. Thunder.
Brena let out a howl and dropped the paint can. Its contents spilled over the floor where Louie was kneeling and desperately sawing, pooling around his body.
Louie tried to ignore Brena, who flew into a tantrum and reached for items on the vanity to throw. She threw the pile of mail at Louie, then she chucked the jewelry box at him. The jewelry box knocked him into the pool of paint. He pushed himself back up, slipping a little, determined to cut Doreen free. As soon as he was upright he continued to hack at Doreen’s wrist.
Doreen cried. The rain slowed. Desperate, Brena grabbed the ornate letter opener from the vanity and plunged it into the hands holding the scissors.
Louie leapt back. Brena rushed him, striking again and gain. He crawled into a corner of the room, his blood mixing with the paint that covered his body.
Brena turned her attention back to Doreen.
Doreen moaned and held her eyes shut. She wished she was far away. She resolved to go. To never return. To move. To retire. Something she should have done years ago.
Brena began to cut her Nana free, concern furrowed her face.
Louie gripped his wrists from the corner of the room and watched in horror as Brena continued to hack at her grandmother.
Louie had been so optimistic when Doreen first moved in across the street. They both had had young children and hard working spouses. They’d share tips for getting rid of the gophers and take turns watching each others kids after school. But all those things had gone away. Louie’s wife and daughter left with a traveling car salesmen, then his son committed suicide. Doreen’s daughter went to rehab for the third time, her husband overdosed, then Brena was born. After that they started attending church and neglecting their yards. Together they pretended to keep up with the mold and the ants and the termites that destroy homes.
The fallen tree rolled down the hill towards the lake, dragging the deck with it. The room lurched as the mobile home became mobile.
Lea Baker is an educator, aspiring writer, and proud U.S. Navy spouse. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and currently teaches composition courses.