Excerpts > Winter 2001 > Special Fiction Issue

Thom Conroy
The Infinite Shades of White

The Infinite Shades of White

I step onto my front porch, flop apart the paper, and blink at the shadow of rungs over headlines. A ladder pokes up from the shrubs, and speckled boots descend. The man’s face on top of the white pants and the white shirt sinks under the roof line of the porch, into sight, and it is a face I have known. Chris Nelson.

Chris squints at me. He says, “Allen?”

My head feels ringed with red heat, the opposite of a halo. I say, “Why are you painting my house?”

Upstairs, Gloria says, “Eysup,” and she pulls the sheets back over her face.

“That painter you called. We went to school together. Remember Chris?”

The bed creaks. Her body twists like a dolphin under the white sheets.

Downstairs, I can hear Chris doing what I told him to do. His bootless feet slapping across our kitchen, the fridge door smacking. When it does, Gloria’s head surfaces. Her eyes snap open, and we hold each other’s gaze. She’s clairvoyant and I’m a fast learner.

“I knew him,” I say. “Ten years ago. I want you to tell me why he’s back.”

“Maybe I can,” she says. She closes her eyes, willing something, searching for the sign. As she lies there, her eyes tight, the breeze jostles the curtains and I’m convinced. But she shakes her head and looks up at me.

“I see nothing. It feels like everything’s just fine,” she says. “But keep your eyes open.”

Chris is sitting in the full sun of the breakfast nook. The light gleams on a glass of orange juice. His spoon shimmers.

“Taking your advice. I haven’t had a sit-down breakfast in weeks.”

I pull out the chair across from him, just watching.


“I’m just looking at you,” I say. “That face you’ve got—it looks like it should. But it doesn’t.”

Chris empties the orange juice into his mouth. He says, “Why do you live in Belmont? In a place like this? You majored in art.”

“Music,” I say. “But now computers. I can make you a web page.”

Chris says, “As far as I can tell, computers are plain magic,” and keeps shoveling in the Cheerios. Eleven years ago, he opened a door and saw me lying on top of Francis Detweiler, his girlfriend, with my underwear at the bottom of my thighs. In this memory, everyone is smirking but me. In this memory, Chris is chocolate-tanned and clean-shaven. He’s nothing like the man in my breakfast nook with a mouth full of cereal.

“Eskimo Pie,” Chris says. He licks the bottom of his bowl. “That’s what color your wife picked.”

After three bowls, Chris is back up the ladder and I’m standing in my driveway, aiming the garage door remote. I’ve replaced the batteries, I’ve squirted grease on the springs. The next step is Gloria on the phone. Every project runs its way past me, through Gloria, and into the hands of expensive strangers. Our house is crowded with the fingerprints of other men.

I work in a study we had built by strangers. Floor-to-ceiling windows and Gloria’s flower garden outside. Amid sun and blooms, sometimes I feel like an artist on the keyboard.

Gloria’s version is the straight one: I make fancy computer ads that flash. Five years ago, I took a night class and scoured my computer manual for terminology. In interviews I work in “TCP.” If things get shaky, I think of all those tiny pixels. I think, everyone is just dots. For a time, I told people that mine was an atomic moral philosophy.

Chris walks around the side of the house, white hat hiding his eyebrows.


I tuck the remote control in my pants pocket. “No,” I say. Chris shifts from one foot to another. “Okay, it’s voodoo,” I say. “Everything we own is cursed and I can’t fix it. I think it’s the work of Gloria’s last boyfriend, Jack. He was from New Orleans. But I’ll fix it. Later.”

“Can’t do that,” Chris says. “Later we’ll be having dinner.”

When Chris says this, I find myself nodding, but it seems as if my neck muscles alone are to blame for this. The tiny parts do all the work.

That afternoon, I sit in front of my computer. I scroll up; I scroll down. I’ve been working on a page for a florist for nearly a month. It was due three days ago, and all I’ve got so far is their logo, Electric Buds, in rose-shaped letters. I’m thinking about making the letters blink pink and red.

A clap rattles the floor-to-ceiling windows. When I look up, Chris is standing there. He waves with a long-handled roller.

I turn back to my screen, and strain to see us looking like we did. I remember this sweatshirt I kept on my back for weeks at a time. I see a poster in Chris’s room that’s almost all skin.

What I’ve told Gloria is that things got rocky with Chris and me. If she presses, I’ll say I fooled around with Francis. It’s not like they were getting married.

Behind me, his paint licks the window frames, regular and clean.

You don’t think that there is a shame that feels like a cow stepped on your chest, until you find yourself pinned, staring up at the udders. It makes me sweat. Now, I am standing in the doorway where Chris stood, watching me pounding myself, my face warped by stupored bliss. But I see the face that looked up from underneath me, too—Francis’s face: plain bored until the second Chris catches me like this, not with Francis, but with myself, since, in a way, Francis did not even need to be there.

Outside, the sound of painting stops. When I turn around, Chris has lowered the roller into a tray, and Gloria is walking past him, headed for the compost with a plate of orange peels. The two exchange words. A smile runs from his lips to hers.

Gloria is peering into the eyes of a bass when I come down from the shower, pinching a towel at my waist. She looks from the fish to me.

I’ve finished the logo and half of the page layout for Electric Buds. Chris is gone until dinner. The towel is my tutu, and I twirl, but Gloria yanks at it in mid-spin. I manage to pull it back.

Gloria’s up on her feet and staring into my face. I point in the direction of the table, at the black scales. “Won’t he mind?”

She says, “I want him to watch this.” When she kisses me, she pushes me back over burners, and I spread my feet to keep from falling. Our lips come apart slowly, like we’re unthreading stitches that hold them together.

I ache to spill beans. I want them two inches thick on the floor. I want us to skate on them like marbles. “You need the truth,” I say, and Gloria steps back, offering the truth all the space it needs.

I talk. The rush of my story and the twang in my neck is true. It’s only the words themselves that lie. “Chris is a problem. Maybe I should have told you about Francis before. It was college, and we all hide things. But I loved her. She would have been standing in your shoes if it weren’t for Chris. I trusted the two of them, and that was my mistake.”

The air is greasy with the smell of butter and rising bread.

“I’m sorry,” Gloria says. “For you, not me. Your secrets can stay where they’ve been.” She sits down next to the fish, and brushes a swath of butter over its eyes. “I bet you don’t even know if Chris eats fish. I bet you think you’re mad at him.”

I re-tuck the towel and swing open the fridge. The wine’s still corked, so I pull out a bottle of soda by the neck. With my back to Gloria, I say, “I don’t know.” I remember hate, but it won’t stay where it should. It floats away from his face and disbands. The pain slinks down past my knees, and I end up feeling like someone stepped on my toe in the dark. “If you could see something,” I say. “If you could tell me what happens next.”

Gloria is pressing a tomato against the cutting board. She looks dreamy-eyed, almost sleepy. I pull out the chair beside her, but she isn’t in the room with me and the fish. My eyes follow her finger to the impression it makes in the tomato’s skin.

Her eyes loosen from the beyond, her finger withdraws, and the tomato breaks into a roll. I stop it at the edge of the counter. “What did you see?”

Gloria says, “White. Wide empty white in all directions. The Sea of Tranquillity.”

I re-center the tomato, pick up the knife. I say, “Maybe you saw inside a can of paint.”

Gloria unhands me of the knife and the tomato. “Vision,” she says, “Is the eye in the mouse hole.”

By the time Chris does get here, I have strolled to the corner and looked both ways for a wayward van, twice. The fish has been waiting in its puddle of grease, and Gloria’s got the oven down to a hair under 170. The dial’s next click is OFF. We’re halfway through the wine, when someone raps at the sliding glass doors.

When the glass is open, Chris’s voice starts up. “I got lost. There’s one house over and over again. My head is spinning with lawns and sidewalks.”

Gloria gets up and opens the oven. A marine-shaped blackness lies in the center of a pan. To Chris, she says, “Do you eat fish?”

Chris says, “Is this a test?”

I begin digging in the utensil drawer. When I put the corkscrew in Chris’s hand, he takes it and waves it over one of the wine bottles, and I see that I’ve handed him a whisk by mistake.

He says, “Wine, free thyself,” and dusts the glass with the whisk’s wire loops. He laughs. The oven door slams.

After dinner, Chris and I take our places on the patio, chatting about the station wagon he drove back in college and the blackened fish and the infinite shades of white: Moon Wash, Egg Cream, Milkshake, Snow Fox. Gloria has left us out here on purpose, sitting on green deck chairs, surrounded by the backyard’s darkness and the miles of tranquillity she imagines for us.

I hold my glass up to the light, and Chris looks over at it, too, and I feel dizzy. What was I hoping to find in it? Earlier, there was a moment the three of us shared. As I was pouring Gloria and Chris wine, I said, “Very few of us have anything genuinely in common. Friendship is accepting the circumstances which bring us together.” We toasted this. But out here, with the highway churning behind us somewhere, it is not the same night as it was then. Out here, Gloria’s fish is not even an egg yet.

“You don’t have an ashtray,” Chris says. I hold up one finger and sleuth around the patio until I come upon a wad of aluminum foil in the corner, which I unfold and set down on the picnic table between us. “Gloria’s secret ashtray. Put it back when you’re done and toss the butt. She doesn’t think I know.”

Chris flicks his lighter on the end of his cigarette. When I finish my wine, I go inside and come back with a bottle of blackberry brandy and two glasses. As I pour each of them full, I apologize. “It was all we had,” I say, and the two of us rush the glasses to our mouths. We make it to the second glass, before Chris says anything.

He says, “Allen, I think there are things that stop counting after a while. I hardly remember anything that happened back then. Ten years is a lot of living between people.”

My face begins burning. I begin shouting. “College is ancient civilization. It’s like the Babylonians.”

Chris empties his glass and he laughs. He says, “Don’t apologize to me.”

In darkness of the back yard, the crickets are grinding quietly. As we sit here, it occurs to me that I own these crickets. I can manhandle them like weeds if I’d like.

Chris patters his butt out on the aluminum foil and tosses it over his shoulder. The ember leaves a streak on the air. He says, “You want to see where I live now?”

I say, “Is this a proposal?” The two of us laugh about it, and it’s the laughter of historians who have found an artifact with their names on it.

When we get out to Chris’s van and he flicks the lights on, he says, “This is it.”

I climb up into the van, and sit down on a milk crate. I’m surrounded by shelves built into the walls. One has socks in it. Another one is lined with old cassettes. Molly Hatchet. Blue Oyster Cult. Kansas. For some reason, his collection elates me.

“You live here,” I say. My fingers thumb the tapes. They stop on the Allman Brothers, and I pull it loose. “Put this in.”

Chris climbs up to the front seat, and while he is bent over in front of his stereo, I say, “What happened? How did it come to this?”

He hops off the seat, slams the front door and enters from the back of the van. He sits down on a paint can and pokes one leg out in front of him so he can dig in his jeans pocket.

I say, “You took a fall, it seems.”

When Chris looks up at me, the van light paints his face green, like the oil-slick on spoiled steak. He lets me look at him like this for a minute, then he leans up and flicks off the ceiling light. Guitars are percolating through lousy speakers behind us.

A lighter flares up in front of Chris’s face, igniting a small pot pipe. He says,

“You still smoking this?”

I’m not. I don’t. I haven’t since I met Gloria, but I say, “Yeah,” and I take the pipe from his hand. I suck on the thing, and my throat stings like I’ve inhaled dust, but I don’t mind the feel of it. I look over at Chris and I like seeing his face in the small flicker of the lighter.

Chris smokes his pipe, straining to fill his lungs, the whole way through the next song. It’s a song we used to play on guitar. When I don’t remember the name of it, I feel proud of myself. Chris lights up a cigarette, and stares out the open back doors, into the gray street. He says, “You don’t get much traffic.”

I stoop over to the back of the van and sit down, letting my feet dangle over the edge. Chris begins to pour us each more brandy, and I hold up my palm at him, but he pours anyway. The gray from outside filters into the darkness from the van. Out in the street, the sound of unfamiliar music fades into shrubs and lawns. When I close my eyes, there’s almost no difference from having them open.

I rest my head back on the door of the van, and I know what I want Chris to say. I want him to tell me that he was married once. A woman who’d pass for Francis in a dark restaurant. I want them to have had a dog. To have bought it as a puppy and named it after something they both cherished.

One time when we were juniors, Chris and I, we drove out to Philadelphia, to Chris’s parent’s house. I remember we sat out on their deck after they went to bed. I was so tired Chris had to hold up beers to my lips. For a long while afterwards, I called him my nurse. It became a nickname. Nurse Nelson. Everyone called him that.

I finish the brandy, and as soon as I set the glass down, Chris pours me another. I don’t have to open my eyes to know. I can hear him doing it. He puts it next to my thigh. In my head, he keeps talking. He tells me his ex-wife’s name. He tells me how he lost his job. He tells me how he got drunk six months afterwards and drove across the state to her house. In the middle of the night, he was tossing bottles onto the highway.

When he got there, he collapsed. He spun over the porch rail and toppled down the steps. In the morning, the dog was barking from inside. The one that had shared their bed.

I remember one time during that last year in college—not too long after it happened—he was on a date, and he came into my house and knocked on the bathroom door while I was in there and told me he was taking the money for his date out of my wallet. He didn’t wait for me to answer him, either. He just didn’t want me to think I had been robbed.

“Allen,” Chris says, “You haven’t been high in years, have you?”

I look over at Chris, and he raises an eyebrow at me. When he does, I leap off of the van. My head gushes and pounds at the temples. I punch at his thigh, only half hitting it, and I back away from the van like it was full of spiders. I say, “What was your address before here? What was your dog’s name?”

Chris looks over at me and I can’t make out the expression on his face.

I turn around and make my way back toward the house, lifting my foot carefully over the lip of the sidewalk. I’m going to ask Gloria how much Chris is charging for the job. I want to see the contract. I’m going over every can of paint on it.

Chris calls something after me, but I don’t want to know what he’s saying. The path to the front door passes under a lamp post in the yard, and I stick to the driveway, walking in the darkness around the trees, to the house. Behind me, I can hear the music from Chris’s crappy speakers.

Upstairs, Gloria is sleeping with her face on a book. The light from the lamp makes her skin look lunar. I flick the lamp off and drag the curtains shut, and then peer out of a crack. In the sliver I’ve left for myself, the van looks mammoth and fuzzy.

The bed creaks, and Gloria says, “Spying on the neighbor’s flamingos?”

I ease down on the bed next to her. My voice is a conspirator’s. “Checking up on Chris.”

Gloria pats my back and flips. The mattress heaves beneath us.

The first thing I see when I step out for the paper the next morning is Chris’s van right in front of the house where it was the night before. Its paint is dull blue and dotted with islands of rust.

Gloria is wearing a white dress, finishing coffee dregs when I sit down across from her. She says, “Chris is inspirational He was up before me today. He had coffee made.”

“You trust too easy,” I say. “I look at that van and it looks like the van of a painter who’d soak you.”

Gloria walks over to the sink and washes a plate. She says, “Have you seen his work? Go out and look at it.”

Gloria walks around the kitchen, and I hear her turning off the coffee maker, gathering ingredients for a sandwich, but my eyes do not leave the paper. When she’s finished making her sandwich and on her way out of the kitchen, I say, “I just want to make sure we’re not getting ripped off.”

Gloria bends down next to me, smelling like milk and jelly. She closes her eyes, presses her fingers into her temples. She says, “Are you going to make me work for this?”

Her face has a corridor of wrinkles leading from the mouth up to her eyes. The wrinkles are shallow and sparse, and she still looks young in the light that comes in through the sliding glass doors. It’s hard to see her like this, and remember that our lives have not always followed one course together. I say to her, “You wouldn’t believe me, if I told you the truth.”

Gloria opens her eyes. Her pupils fix right on my own, but the expression is blank. She’s not looking for anything.

“The truth,” I say, “is that I can’t feel the way I should.”

When I’m done saying this, Gloria touches my stomach. What I have said is over, and she is rubbing me like I have a belly ache. I look at her, and she kisses my cheek. She stands up, and kisses my forehead. She says, “He should finish up by tomorrow.”

I turn around and watch her walk over to the front door. She opens it and the sound of the birds from outside rushes in. I can see Chris’s van out there, but I can also see the trees across the street and the openness of the sky over them. Gloria waves and she walks out.

I finish Electric Buds by noon. I’ve decided to go with the flashing rose-lettered logo. The flashing will drive them crazy in a week, but that’s only to my advantage. They’ll need to re-hire me, and I’ll have to make adjustments in the source page.

I look out of the floor-to-ceiling window at Gloria’s garden. The top-heavy flowers are in full sun. Chris is down on his knees rolling a speckled tarp. In the thigh of his pants, there is a hole where the skin shows through. The skin is hairless and pallid, nothing like Eskimo Pie.

He stops and stretches his arms in front of him as if he were bowing. He sits back on his knees and cracks his neck. He may have damaged himself during his drunken plunge over the porch rail. He may have joined the army. As I watch this man kneeling on my lawn, the space of his life, year after year, surges under my ribs until I feel dizzy with my own ignorance.

In a few minutes, he will have moved to the other side of the house, and, aside from the ruts of his ladder in the grass, there will be no evidence that he was the one who painted our house. By the weekend, he’ll be finished. Our house will gleam with the new paint, and Gloria and I will sit out on the patio and look up at it and think that someone did a good job. After a while, the window frames will chip. We’ll find flakes of Eskimo Pie in the grass, and Gloria will be on the phone again.

I wanted my life to be lived like this, in one direction only. I want to come to a point, any point at all, and for that point to be like the lock in a canal, one that you can’t go back through.

In front of me, the rose-shaped letters flash red and pink and red and pink. When I tell Gloria what I have seen this morning, I want it to sound like a vision. I will say that my eyes grew hazy, and the red and pink blurred into a single color until they filled the screen, and then bled out in front of it, and over its sides. I will say that the color became the bright color of plastic, the color of lipstick, the color of lingerie. I will say that it opened and divided for me, and I saw a space like a cave, a space as quiet as a bed. And on the bed, I saw sheets the color of eggs whites and a long impression, cupping the shadow where someone had been sleeping.


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