The Wall Dog’s Ghost Sign
by Geonn Cannon
Copyright © 2017 Geonn Cannon
Today’s site was located on the upper floors of a hotel, ten stories up and blocked from the sidewalk by the squat building next door. Eliot Ibarra normally liked using a scaffold for the stability, but opportunities like this were what made her job fun. She set up her gear on the roof - a large metal tripod with sandbags to add extra weight. She anchored the legs and double-checked to make sure it was as secure as possible, then attached the rope to her harness. Usually she had a spotter, but today was different. Today was special.
She walked to the edge and looked down. If her harness failed or the straps broke, she would fall fifty feet to the neighboring building. No fun. But she had fail-safes set up to slow her down enough to save her life. With a final tug to make sure everything was secure, and patting herself down to make sure her gear was in her vest, she threw a leg over the parapet and turned to plant her feet against the bricks. The harness held her as snug as gravity and she walked backward until she was lined up with the artwork.
It was a faded stamp of oil-based paint stretched fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long between the front edge of the building and the first window. It was an advertisement for something called HERCULES SOAP, with giant blue letters fanning out behind a cartoonish version of the god. Eliot hung near the top and rearranged the gear on her vest so she could get to work. It was just past seven am, and she had a long day ahead of her.
She reached for the iPod hooked on her belt and started her playlist. Her earbuds were held in place by her beanie so they would be less likely to fall out as she moved. Twenty One Pilots began singing “Stressed Out” loud enough to block any sounds from the street. Over the years she’d learned to ignore the sound of looky-loos passing on the sidewalk below. They didn’t stare as often when she used a scaffold, the tall yellow framework which looked like a fire escape, but a woman dangling off a building like Spider-Woman was definitely a spectacle. She’d ended up on more than a few Twitters and Instagrams.
Wait, not Spider-Woman. Who was that one Marisol had been reading? Silk. She liked all the spider characters but Silk was her favorite. “She’s not white, for one thing,” Marisol had said.
“How reverse racist of you,” Eliot teased.
“Representation matters,” Marisol had replied in Spanish.
Eliot smiled at the memory as she began painting the first coat. Her job was to cover the original ad with a coat of white so something else could take its place. They hadn’t officially sold the space yet so there would be a brief window where there was just an expanse of white left behind. The reformed graffiti artist in her couldn’t abide emptiness. But first, Hercules Soap had to be completely wiped out.
While she preferred creating, erasing gave her mind a chance to wander. She thought about the day she met Marisol. She was standing on the scaffold, cap turned backward, listening to Melanie Martinez as she refurbished a sign for the MarQueen Hotel. At some point during her shift (“You had just started on the outline of the Q,” Marisol once clarified), Marisol Cervantes happened to be passing by. She immediately abandoned whatever errand she’d been on to watch the artist at work.
Eventually Eliot turned around and spotted her audience. She pulled the earbuds out and held up her hand. Marisol waved back.
“You have paint on your coveralls.”
“That’s what they’re here for.”
Marisol nodded as if that was some bright piece of wisdom. Eliot stood awkwardly four stories up from Marisol, who had her neck craned back and one eye squinted shut against the sun.
“You want to come down here so we can talk without shouting?”
“I have two more hours on my shift.”
Marisol said, “And your boss is a real hard-ass?”
Eliot said, “Yeah, I suppose I can be from time to time.”
Marisol laughed. “Okay. Well, how about I come back in two hours and see if you want to talk more?”
“I’ll be here.”
She watched Marisol until she went around the corner, then turned back to face her work. She tugged on her ear, unknowingly smearing it with white paint which would remain until Marisol removed it later that night with a napkin she wet with ice from the water their waitress had just left. Part of her didn’t believe Marisol would really come back. And even if she did come back, the odds that some random stranger would be both Hispanic and gay were so astronomical, it didn’t bear thinking about.
But Marisol did come back. She even took out her phone and filmed Eliot work for a while. And when Eliot wrapped up and came down to the street, Marisol invited her to dinner at a restaurant nearby. After the water but before they ordered, Marisol revealed she was gay.
“I think you’re insanely attractive, and your job is cool, and you’re wearing a Hamilton baseball cap, so even if you’re not gay I think we’ll have a lot to talk about, but I just wanted to make sure if this was a date or just two people having a conversation before we got too far into it.”
Eliot let the corner of her mouth tilt up. “You talk a lot, huh?”
“When I’ve got a lot to say and I think the other person might step in and crush my dreams. Yeah. I guess I do.” She tapped a fingernail against the tabletop. “So...”
“So?” Eliot made a show of moving her water closer and taking a sip through her straw.
Marisol grinned. “Oh, so you’re kind of a bitch, huh?”
“Kind of,” Eliot said. “But I’m a gay bitch.”
“Oh. Okay.” Marisol’s look of relief made her look even cuter. “Cool.”
Eliot took off her cap and dropped it on the table. “So you like Hamilton...?”
They spent the dinner getting to know each other. Marisol worked in a pharmacy, which immediately intimidated Eliot. That job meant lots of school and meant money and meant far beyond the league in which she usually dated. She pushed down her self-esteem issues and focused on their shared love for the Broadway musical neither of them had much hope of ever seeing. When they left the dinner, Marisol started singing ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ and Eliot reluctantly joined in. She kept her voice low and scanned the sidewalk for anyone who might overhear.
“Come on, sister,” Marisol chided her, “if you’re gonna sing, then sing.”
Eliot belted out, “The greatest city in the world!” loud enough that it echoed off the alleyway. She ducked her head in belated embarrassment but Marisol applauded her.
Since then, Eliot sang in public whenever Marisol prompted her. Marisol’s favorite performance was when she sang ‘Helpless’ and forced Eliot to do Lin-Manuel’s rap in the middle. Eliot thought it was the butchest line in the whole play, and when she got to the end (growling “As long as I’m alive, Eliza, swear to God you’ll never feel so...”), she planted her feet wide apart and swung her knees in and out while thrusting her hips. That never failed to make Marisol laugh.
Sometimes she sang to Marisol in bed, whispering lyrics to her after they made love. Those were her favorite duets.
Eliot moved down the wall. The soles of her boots scraped over the ancient paint on the brick, taking off the last thin layer before it was covered forever. She moved her roller and another swath of blue disappeared.
A year after their first meeting, they celebrated their anniversary with a trip to Chicago so they could see Hamilton. Marisol saved up a little every month until she had enough to buy the tickets. The play was absolutely phenomenal, as they knew it would be, even without the original Broadway cast. Eliot loved the ability to see a new interpretation of the story. By the end, she decided Miguel Cervantes (“No relation,” Marisol said when she saw his name in the program) was her preferred version of Alexander.
In January, they almost broke up because of some stupid miscommunication and stubbornness on both their parts. Cooler heads prevailed and they made up before anything truly cruel could be said, and they came out of the crisis with a new set of tools for dealing with disagreements. That fight also ended with Eliot finally breaking down and accepting Marisol’s invitation to move into her much-nicer apartment. Marisol wasn’t rich. She was in debt from school and the pharmacy didn’t pay her anything near what she was worth, but she had more money in the bank than Eliot. It made sense to live in her place, but Eliot balked at abandoning her apartment.
“You dangle off the side of buildings for a living,” Marisol said. “Am I that much scarier?”
“Yeah,” Eliot had said, surprised at how meek she sounded. “Gravity is a constant. I can always count on it being there.”
Marisol said, “Are you saying you can’t count on me?”
“No! No, not at all. No. I’m saying I can’t count on me continuing to be worthy of you.”
“Honey.” She took Eliot’s hand. “Remember when we met? I said I would come back in two hours when you got off work?” Eliot nodded. “You know where I went? Around the corner to sit in a coffee shop so I would see if you left early, because I didn’t want to risk missing you. I just sat there. For two hours. Waiting for you. I’d do it again if I had to. I’ll always wait at least two hours for you.”
Eliot leaned down and hugged Marisol. “Okay. I’ll move in with you.”
Marisol squeezed Eliot’s shoulders. “Thank you.”
She’d never regretted the decision. Sometimes people in the lobby looked askance at her when she showed up in paint-dripped coveralls, and more than once she’d been “helpfully directed” to the service entrance, but she didn’t let it get to her. Certain people would always see a brown girl in a work outfit as hired help. Raging at every single one of them would only exhaust her.
Another level down. She glanced down at the street and saw exactly what she expected: a pair of women in fancy coats and shiny high heels craning their necks to watch her. She faced forward again. More paint on the roller, another swath gone. She had a rhythm to everything in life. Painting something this massive could be daunting without a plan of attack, and she used the same philosophy even when she wasn’t working.
A long time ago she’d learned when to ask Marisol if she needed help and when to wait for the request to come. Sometimes she would stand silently on the corner while Marisol figured out how to catch up, and other times Marisol would immediately ask for a hand getting over a curb. It depended on Marisol’s mood and how her day had been. Eliot prided herself on learning the signals so well.
Just that morning, walking out to the garage, Eliot said, “Do you need a hand?”
“If you have a second.”
Eliot put her things on the trunk of the car. She stooped down, Marisol put her arm across her shoulders, and Eliot lifted her out of the chair. She absolutely adored the weight of Marisol in her arms, but she didn’t waste any time transferring her to the driver’s seat. Marisol adjusted herself against the back of the seat while Eliot carefully positioned her legs under the steering wheel.
Eliot then folded up the wheelchair and placed it in the backseat. Marisol had a friend at work who would help her get the chair out when she arrived. Eliot leaned into the car and kissed Marisol goodbye.
“See you tonight, beautiful.”
“Am I picking you up?”
Eliot nodded. “Do you have the address?”
“On my phone.”
“Cool. I should be done around six.”
Marisol said, “Got it. We’ll grab dinner.”
“Sounds good. I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
When they first started dating, Eliot was confused when Marisol mentioned driving somewhere. On their second date she demonstrated her prowess behind the wheel. She used a lever with her left hand and operated a knob on the steering wheel with her right. Eliot was amazed at how easy she made it look. By the time they got to the restaurant, she’d almost forgotten the fact Marisol was using her hands the way most people used their feet.
On their third date, Marisol said, “You get bonus points, by the way.”
“For what? Choosing this place?”
“No. You’ve made it to the third date without asking.” She gestured at herself.
Eliot shrugged. “I figured it was your story to tell. I didn’t want to push.”
“Not a lot of women are as tactful as you. Usually about halfway through the first date, there’s a lull in the conversation that gets filled with ‘So... how did it happen...?’” She dropped her voice to a low whisper, scrunching up her face. “As if saying it quietly will keep people from noticing I’m in a chair. That’s when I know I’ll probably never be anything to them beyond the wheelchair girl. The novelty they can tell their friends about to make themselves look open-minded or whatever. I kind of figured you weren’t like them. They’re the kind of people who move to push me around without even asking if I want them to.”
“Oh, those people. I would never. And if it’s any consolation, I didn’t even notice the chair. I just thought you were lazy.”
Marisol laughed. “Nice.”
“I’m glad they were all assholes.” Eliot picked up her glass and sipped the water. “They did me a favor by keeping you single until you found me.”
“I’ll pass along your regards next time I see them.”
Marisol chuckled and watched Eliot read the menu. “So?”
Eliot looked up. “What?”
Marisol raised an eyebrow. “Even now you’re not going to ask?”
“If you want to tell me, I’m willing to hear it. I don’t think it’s my place to ask. I assume it’s a very personal and probably painful story. Tell me when you’re ready.”
Marisol folded her hands in her lap. “I was fifteen. I stayed after school to talk to my favorite teacher. Help her clean up the classroom. Tell her I was in love with her.” Eliot raised her eyebrow and Marisol laughed. “Yeah. Baby-gay Marisol didn’t waste time. Miss Vallance was kind. She didn’t tell me I was confused or that my feelings were wrong, she just said I was a kid who was overflowing with hormones, just like all the other kids in school. She said I didn’t love her, I just liked her. Everything else was just teen horniness. She didn’t use that word.”
Eliot said, “Oh. I was thinking she was a cool teacher.”
“She was,” Marisol said. “She made me feel normal and taken care of. In the end, I didn’t even care that she ‘rejected’ me because of how comforting she was. She even asked if I wanted her help figuring out when and how to tell my parents I was gay. She offered to drive me home and I accepted. We were a few blocks away when a truck blew through a red light and T-boned the car. Passenger side. My side. Miss Vallance had some scrapes and bruises. I wasn’t quite as lucky.”
“Yeah. Afterward, she blamed herself for what happened. She started drinking. She almost lost her job. Eventually I found out and told her that it wasn’t her fault. If I hadn’t needed a ride, she never would have been at that intersection. So if anyone was to blame, it was me. But I told her I wouldn’t beat myself up over it if she got help. She did. She joined a program. Kept her job.”
“You saved her.”
Marisol said, “I don’t know. I just know it wasn’t fair for her to blame herself for what happened. It’s called an accident for a reason. And silver lining, it happened before I learned to drive. So that contraption you saw out there is the only way I know to pilot a car. The fact you do everything with your feet is weird and backward to me.”
Eliot chuckled. “I guess that would be one benefit, sure. And the settlement from the trucking company means I didn’t have to worry about school or anything like that. You were probably wondering about my apartment.”
“Well, it is pretty lavish.”
“It only cost me a pair of legs! I know some people who would make that deal in a heartbeat.”
Before Marisol could say anything else, a bouncy Chris Isaak song came on over the diner’s speakers. They both laughed at the inappropriate soundtrack.
“Well, I’m not going to tell any more of this story over a surfer song. How about you? Any traumatic stories from growing up?”
“I came out to my mother,” Eliot said, “and she seemed okay with it. Then I introduced her to the girl I liked. Carmen had short hair and liked to wear baggy jeans and boots. My mother was overjoyed! ‘That’s a boy, a boy, you like boys, you’re just confused by this one because she’s so macho!’ So I had to explain to her that Carmen was butch, it didn’t mean I wanted dick.”
Marisol laughed. “Has she come around?”
“Not really. Every time I date anyone the slightest bit butch, she thinks I’m sliding over to the ‘right’ side.”
“Good news is, you won’t have to worry about that with me.”
They had dinner, and Eliot walked Marisol home. At the door to the diner, Marisol said, “You can push me, if you want.”
The walk to Marisol’s apartment was short. When they arrived, Eliot came around in front of her for a goodnight kiss. Marisol put her hands on Eliot’s face like she always did, but when the kiss ended, she only dropped them as far as the collar of her blouse. She held on just tight enough that Eliot didn’t try to straighten up.
“So... I’ll call you tomorrow. We’ll set up plans for the weekend?”
“It all works.”
Eliot said, “What...?”
Marisol glanced down at herself and then back up to Eliot’s eyes. “That’s something else the jerks always want to know. I can’t walk, but everything else works just fine.”
“Oh. I didn’t assume... I mean, I didn’t think about if... I... are you asking me if I want to stay?”
“I’m telling you that I really hope you’ll stay.”
Eliot said, “Take me inside.”
Once they were in the apartment, Marisol asked if Eliot minded going into the bathroom while she got ready in bed. “If we’re going to spend the night together for the first time, I don’t want you to deal with the mechanics of it all. I just want to be the hot woman waiting for you in bed.”
“That’s what I’ll see even if you need my help with the chair. You know that, right?”
“I know. But--”
Eliot said, “I’ll go in the bathroom to change.”
Eliot went into the bathroom. She scrubbed her hands under the sink to make sure there were no lingering traces of paint, checked her hair, and stripped down to her underwear. There was some dry skin on her ankle so she searched for lotion and applied it. It was shea butter, and much nicer than the stuff she usually used, and she decided to go ahead and apply it to her hands as well. Smooth skin could only help with what she was about to do.
Eliot came out of the bathroom. Marisol was sitting on the edge of the bed in a silk nightie that was either white, blue, or very light purple. It was hard to be sure in the darkness. It was the first time Eliot had seen her without the chair. She looked smaller. Incomplete. But there was no doubt that she looked gorgeous. Eliot realized she was staring and began to stammer an apology, but she realized Marisol hadn’t noticed because she was too busy ogling her.
“Wow,” Marisol said. “I knew your clothes were all kind of baggy and formless, but... wow.”
“I don’t like my curves.”
“C’mere, I’ll show you how loveable they are. And I’ll do it really slowly.”
Eliot crossed the room and stood in front of Marisol. They kissed and Marisol explored Eliot’s body with her hands. Eliot looked down. She started to say something but stopped herself. Marisol pecked the corner of her mouth.
“It’s okay to ask,” she said softly. “You’re not supposed to know every single thing automatically.”
“Can I move your legs?”
Eliot put her hand on Marisol’s hip. “Can you feel that?”
“Yes.” Marisol pushed Eliot’s hand down. “Yes... a little... and no.”
Eliot moved her hand back up, pushing the slip out of the way to stroke Marisol’s hip. “If I lie on top of you, will it hurt you?”
“Why don’t we find out?”
She moved her hand up to the short hair at the base of Eliot’s skull and fell back, pulling her down onto her. Eliot was careful about where she planted her knees and how she rested her weight. They kissed. They explored each other. The minimal clothing they’d left on was quickly discarded and soon Eliot forgot about being careful. She focused on making Marisol feel good and getting her own pleasure. There were times when Marisol couldn’t reposition herself and asked Eliot for help, but otherwise it was no different than any of her other sexual experiences.
No, she corrected herself immediately. There was something different, but it had nothing to do with Marisol’s ability to move her legs.
When they finished, Eliot put her head on Marisol’s chest. Marisol talked about some of the ‘devices’ she had to make sex easier.
“They call some of it furniture. And it feels weird to own furniture which is exclusively for having sex, but--”
“I love you.”
Marisol said, “I love you, too. But it really does open a lot of possibilities. It’s like... you know those sex shops where boring normal people try to spice up their love lives with weird gear? It’s like that. But owning it doesn’t mean I’m kinky. I’m kinky for other reasons.”
Eliot smiled. “I love you.”
“I heard you the first time. But feel free to keep saying it as much as you want.” She brushed Eliot’s hair out of her face. “You know this is, like, really early to say that, right?”
“Yeah.” Eliot looked up at her. “But if you don’t have to clean the whole plate before you know a meal is good.”
Marisol kissed her. “Speaking of eating...”
“Was that a segue to requesting oral sex?”
“I believe in asking for what I want.”
Eliot said, “I can respect that.”
She lifted the blankets and slid down to fulfill the request of the woman she loved.
Hanging from the wall, Eliot smiled at the memory. Their first time had been special, but she loved the normal times just as much. When foreplay involved lifting Marisol into bed, or twenty minutes of massaging her lower back because it ached from being in the chair all day. She was happy to be there for Marisol and Marisol was happy to let her help. They made a fantastic team. Speaking of which...
Eliot scanned the white stretch she had created. There was enough space for what she wanted to do. She put away her white roller and took out another one, this brush filled with red paint. She pressed a button and let the paint infuse the brush before she placed it against the wall and painted a wide streak over the area she had just erased.
She knew Marisol frontward and backward, in and out. They knew everything about each other. And she knew that the most dangerous thing in the world would be taking her for granted. She didn’t use Marisol’s pharmacy. They lived in different neighborhoods and traveled in different circles. Eliot wouldn’t even have a local comic book shop if Marisol hadn’t gotten her hooked. And the day they met, if Marisol hadn’t lingered on the street, Eliot may never have known their paths crossed.
Painting the message took the rest of Eliot’s shift. When she was done, she climbed back to the roof and dismantled her gear. The sun was just beginning to set, hiding behind the buildings but still painting the sky with its myriad colors. She slung her bag over her shoulder and went downstairs to wait for Marisol on the sidewalk.
She didn’t have to wait long. Marisol pulled up twenty minutes later, parking and leaning out the window to look up at the wall art. Eliot put her things in the backseat next to Marisol’s chair and then got in the passenger seat. Marisol flicked a finger up at the sign.
“That’s sweet. I didn’t know you did stuff like that.”
Eliot said, “On special occasions, yeah. I’ll paint over it tomorrow.”
Marisol said, “It’s problematic, though. There aren’t any names.”
“Why is that a problem?”
“A big giant WILL YOU MARRY ME on the side of a building with no names? You know how many guys you’re sending into a panic right now?” She laughed. “I mean, at least put some initials so its intended audience has a clue.”
Eliot said, “That wouldn’t help. Do you know how many M.C.s there are in this town?”
Marisol chuckled. Then she turned and looked at Eliot. “Wait, huh?”
“Besides, I don’t care who else sees the sign now that it’s reached its intended audience.” She turned in her seat. “I know you don’t like rings, so I didn’t have a big down-on-one-knee gesture and right now I’m not entirely sure what to do with my hands.” She took Marisol’s right hand, holding it between both of hers. “Marisol Ana Cervantes, will you marry me?”
“Me?” Marisol asked in a meek voice.
“Yeah. I don’t know every woman in the world, but of the ones I’ve met, you’re pretty much the top. So I thought... why not see if you’ll let me stick around?”
Marisol wiped at her eyes. “I had a shitty day at work, El.”
Eliot wasn’t sure what to make of that. “Oh... okay...”
“Customers made me feel like shit. A doctor wrote the wrong prescription and the guy it was for blamed me while I busted my ass to set things right. My boss made me feel like I didn’t matter. I was going to ask you to buy me a milkshake to make me feel better.”
“I can still buy you the milkshake.”
Marisol looked up at her. “Plus the proposal? I get both?”
“Yeah, sure. I mean, you’re getting kind of greedy--”
“Yes.” Marisol grabbed Eliot’s face and kissed her lips, her cheeks, and the corners of her mouth. “Yes, I will marry you, and I want a vanilla shake.”
Marisol said, “You have paint on your face.”
“So do you now.” She rubbed at a smudge on Marisol’s bottom lip.
“I’ll give you a bath when we get home.”
Eliot grinned. “That’s a deal.”
“After the milkshake.”
Marisol reached down and squeezed Eliot’s hand. She laughed, bent down to kiss her fingers, and then faced forward. She took out her phone and took multiple pictures of the sign, changing position and angle several times until she was satisfied she had enough. She looked through the gallery to make sure she’d gotten enough and nodded as she put the phone back in her pocket.
“This is gonna be so good.”
“Why? Are you going to Rain City for the milkshake?”
Marisol said, “My fiancée would insist on it.”
“Well, nothing but the best for my fiancée,” Eliot said.
Marisol laughed and brushed a hand over her face. “Fiancée. My fiancée. Okay. All right.” She pulled away from the curb and joined the flow of traffic.
Eliot relaxed in the passenger seat. The stress of planning the perfect proposal and figuring out the right site and the exact right time to do it were gone. The original plan was to ask on Valentine’s Day, but there wasn’t a job that worked for her plans until now. It had been torture waiting so long and she was starting to worry Marisol had picked up on her anxiety. She’d known Marisol would say yes, but she’d spent the last week worried about messing something up. Now she could relax. She turned her head to see Marisol was still smiling with tears in her eyes.
“Say it again.”
“Rain City milkshake,” Marisol said.
Eliot reached up and pinched the back of Marisol’s neck. “C’mon.”
“Yes, Eliot Alejandra Ibarra, I will be your wife.”
Eliot took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Good. Thank you.”
She put her hand out the window. She knew there was no real reason to feel relief. They had so much to work out. How they were going to get married, what kind of ceremony it would be, getting their families involved, wardrobe and all those insane details, not to mention the unpredictable trials of being a married couple... they were at the base of a hill and were just taking their first steps toward the peak. But all that would come later.
Right now, they only had to worry about Rain City milkshakes and a bubble bath for two. Everything else could be put off until later.