"Will you teach me to paint a house?" I asked Dade Smith.
"Exterior or interior?"
I was young. All was possible. "Both," I said.
He fixed his eyes on mine, staring so intently I felt the urge to clothe my soul. Dade was tall and thin, even scrawny, in that Don't-Let-Your-Sons-Grow-Up-to-Be-Cowboys way. He wore pointed boots and tight jeans, a black T-shirt spackled with white and light blue paint, and a cap that advertised K-Mart. To the uninitiated, he was a thirty-something who never outgrew his adolescence. To me, he was a mentor, a teacher, and a guide.
"So you want to paint a house, huh? Why?"
I wasn't prepared for such a probing question. "I just do, I guess."
My mentor laughed through his nose, his nostrils twitching, while his expression remained as if etched in stone. His dark eyes continued their unnatural stare.
"Why do you look at me so?" I asked.
"I just do, I guess."
I knew I had much to learn.
"Oh," I said, feeling the chill of enlightenment. I put on a jacket.
He handed me a clean brush and a bucket of white paint. We were standing outside his ex brother-in-law's house in Sarcoxie, Missouri. He had been divorced for years, but Dade kept in touch with the ex brother-in-law. "You never know who's gonna give you work."
I made note of my mentor's practical wisdom. With the truly gifted, there is no divide between the mystical and the pragmatic. All is one; one is all; all is all. But one is never one.
He pointed to the garage, a slap-dash structure of peeling plywood and cinder block. "Why don't you start here?"
I approached the garage with trepidation, my heart pounding to an ancient, primeval rhythm. My journey as a house painter was about to begin.
"Not so fast," Dade said. "Scrape off the loose stuff first."
"Scrape off the loose stuff first."
Wanting, nay, needing to impress my mentor I spent most of the next four hours laboring under the cruel Missouri sun scraping flecks of yellowing paint from the garage. My arm ached and my knees called out in pain from climbing the ladder to scrape under the eaves and from deep-knee bending to get the paint along the bottom of the garage. Even my toes ached. As tired as I was, I felt invigorated by the metaphor I was experiencing first hand about the importance of preparation.
"What the hell?" my mentor shouted as he inspected my work. "Are you still scraping? I finished two bedrooms and a bathroom already."
Impressed as I was with his speed, I tried to explain my own slow, deliberate approach.
"Look. You do too good a job, we don't get to paint the house again in a couple years."
Once again, my guide's practical wisdom taught me an important life lesson: It takes too much time to do a job well.
"Break for lunch," he said. "When you get back, paint the hell out of this baby."
"The painting of a garage begins with a single stroke," I said, proud of my wit. Again, I was humbled by the quick retort of my mentor.
"Whatever." He shrugged his shoulders. "Just start painting."
Feeling like Shakespeare dipping his quill into an inkwell as he began his Hamlet, I gently inserted the brush into the can of white paint marveling that such innocence can withstand the elements. Dade, unimpressed, focused on the core of the undertaking.
"Paint already, for crying out loud."
And so I did. Touching my brush to the wall I instantly sensed the joy of creation as the weathered garage transformed into a gleaming white sanctuary for a Chevrolet.
Before returning to his own work inside the house, I had a question for my guide.
"Which way should I paint?" I asked. "Up and down or side to side?"
"I don't give a rat's ass! Just be finished in a couple of hours."
I took that to mean it was up to me to find my own way within the parameters of the universe.
Although I would prefer to have spent an eternity caressing the walls with my gentle yet firm stroke, lovingly and adoringly watching the paint dry slowly and magically, I was on a deadline so I rushed the job. To my chagrin, the paint dried unevenly and the old paint began stubbornly showing through where I had applied the paint too thin. I was broken-hearted. I fought back bitter tears of disappointment.
"No problem," my mentor said. "You'll just throw on another coat tomorrow."
Another important life lesson: You can always cover up your mistakes.
The day was long, my body ached, but my soul longed to absorb the day's lesson. So we headed to Murphy's for beer. It was there that I learned the essence of the house painter by asking one more question.
"When we began, you asked me why I want to paint houses. May I be so bold as to ask that question of you?"
"I like the smell of paint fumes" was his enigmatic but elegant reply.