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  • Lost Among the Hedgerows
  • Jeffrey N. Johnson (bio)

THE only certainty on the morning of our foreclosure was that I was going to paint a door. Not my own door, which was soon to be the property of a stranger, but a wooden frame glass door belonging to a contemporary-style house in the high-end hills above Lake Barcroft. I always start a job on the door most traveled, and I admit it’s a calculated move. It’s a play on sentimentality—the door as threshold to hearth and home, the place of greetings and goodbyes. I scrape and sand the plies of old paint, apply primer and two microcoats of semigloss until the door is reborn. When I began, I noticed that homeowners’ complaints about quality declined in relation to how beautiful their front doors looked after the first day of work. Those beautiful doors also toned down the grumbling over my rates.

The homeowner, Mrs. Romero, said over the phone not to knock at that hour, that the house was unlocked, so I grabbed my gear out of the van and tried not to think about what was happening on the courthouse steps. It was another muggy morning that had me sweating before I’d even started. I let loose with a four-inch scraper on the head trim, spitting sharp chips of red paint over my bare arms and shoes, and soon I fell into this zone I imagine a sculptor must feel when he works a piece of stone—a zenlike momentum as one hand scrapes and the other feels along, informing the first of angle, speed, and pressure.

I was halfway down the jamb when I saw him: the old man’s face in the glass door. We held each other’s eyes for a while, neither flinching. He could have been standing there watching me the whole time. His skin was dark and cracked like alligatored paint, and his face was bent out of shape, white hair mashed up on one side and the opposite cheek filled with weights. The long white robe he wore hung open, letting his sunken chest add to his other sunken features. I was looking at a life near the end of its curve.

He raised a shaking hand and pointed. I opened the door to introduce myself, but had to wait until he backed up his walker. [End Page 547]

“Mr. Romero?” I said.

He ignored my outstretched hand and spoke from the side of his mouth, forcing the words. “There is no fright in you,” he said, still pointing at my chest. “No fright.”

It felt like I was being accused of something, but the accusation seemed like a good thing. I just stood there.

“Come . . . come,” he said, wheeling around on the walker. I thought of taking him by the arm, but he didn’t seem the type to want any help. We came into the kitchen, and he took a seat at the breakfast table in front of a soggy bowl of cornflakes and a mess of newspapers. He was winded and sat there collecting himself, concentrating. Then he raised his good hand and put his thumb and index finger together as if pinching a word out of the air.

“I had ten thousand men under my command,” he said, squinting for effect. “I see with my eyes. I had to know every one of them. You!” He slapped his hand on the table. “You’re the one I’d have looked for. The way you came to the house. Your gait. And here, right here.” This time he patted the table. “You would have risen quickly in the army.” There was music playing in the next room, some faint classical piano, but nothing I recognized. The old man leaned over the paper and raised a magnifying glass, but he wasn’t reading, just tracing aimlessly over the newsprint.

“I’ll get back to work,” I said. As I turned back down the hall, the front door opened and a woman I assumed was his wife came marching toward me—a military wife, the commandant of the house, and, judging by all the...


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pp. 547-559
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