He did remember the painters vividly though. That part at least could only have come from a single specific illness. He had never seen the painters, but he remembered them. Of all things to remember: two voices outside a dim warm room, clanking of buckets, creaking of ladders. The swish-swish of the paint brushes spreading white paint on the clapboard outside his room. The same almost clear brownish light seeping through the off-white windowshades. The same spaciousness of a familiar room seen from bed level. Cracks in the plaster ceiling, nothing to worry about yet. As a child of course he didn't worry about cracks in the ceiling; they were just something to look at and trace in his mind through the long dull days of being sick. He had a book by his bedside, then as now, but then as now he didn't have the energy to read all day.
He mapped the cracks in the ceiling, tottered to the bathroom, waited for the simple meal on the tray, the sad female eyes. Back then, the painters; today, the memory of the painters. Why had the painters seemed so important? He didn't know that any better now than then.
He could tell from their voices that they were black men. Their voices were calm, deep, quiet. One must have been new to the job, because he heard them introduce themselves. The one with the older-sounding voice was named Vernon. The other was John. Both slow-talking men. Vernon said, "John, let me ask you...do you believe in the Good Book?"
After a pause, John answered, "Yes, I do. I surely do."
"You go to church? We have us a good church, down on Sixty-Third and Vermont. Come on by this Sunday."
"I think I will, Vernon. I'm new to town, you know."
"You got a family?"
The two men talked on, voices quiet over the swish-swish of the brushes. The ladders clacked as they moved them along the wall. Their voices went out of range. That was all he could remember of their talk. They had barely ruffled the silence of his sickroom. He had returned his gaze to the plaster ceiling and thought about school, about the dusty-seeming light in the tall rooms, and had fallen asleep. That had been more than half a century ago.
He wondered about Vernon and John, who were probably dead by now. Though you never know; if John had lived past eighty he might still be alive. He had never seen them, only heard the deep voices and once or twice seen a shadow on the windowshade. He remembered other things from that time: a visit to a little lost beach town with his father and brother, where they stayed in a blue and white motel with a pool and a pretty receptionist. The long dull days at school in the tall rooms. The receptionist might still be alive, maybe one or two of his teachers as well. He couldn't recall any of their voices.
They'd had the house painted five years ago, but the painters had been Mexicans then, with fast, high-pitched voices. He had not been in the sickroom then, but they worked on Saturdays and Sundays and he had heard them. All the painters had been black men when he had been a child. All the painters were Mexican men now. When did it all change? He had been busy working and had not noticed. He had not noticed most of what had gone on. Now that he had time to notice, he stayed in the room where there was nothing to notice except the pattern of cracks in the plaster ceiling. Fine, meaningless cracks that threatened nothing. No voices outside his window. The clear brownish light. The hollow feeling inside. Nothing moving except the aimless tides of memory. Old memory. He made a point of forgetting the things the therapist said as soon as he returned to his room. He was sure that whatever it was he was to learn was hidden in the memories he followed, using the cracks in the ceiling as his map. He would have to find his way soon. He was becoming weak from staying in the room all day and night.
He tottered to the bathroom, and this time, after he finished, he looked at himself in the mirror. What a pathetic old man, he thought. What was he doing to himself? Remembering the painters had somehow decided him. The therapist had nothing to do with it, he was sure. He would totter out through the empty house to the living room and telephone his wife. It might startle her, and it meant having to talk to a secretary first, but he would do it. He would tell her that he wanted to have dinner together at the dining table. That was a start. It would be a long way back, but that was a start.