I had seen that old, paint faded Chevy El Camino driving around the streets of Noel on many occasions but never gave the car or its driver a second thought. The small Southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel was home to many such vehicles, in fact, I often considered the possibility that I was the only one living there who didn’t own an older, and one in need of fresh paint, pickup truck.
“You know, he’s the guy that drives that old El Camino” my friend rather matter-of-factly stated. “Lewis Helt, dag-nabbit, is a handyman and a gal-darn good painter. He’ll paint your doors. Give him a call.” You see I was looking for someone to paint a pair of French doors. My wife, Robin and I moved from Tampa, Florida to the Noel area in 2006. There, on a hill which overlooked the Elk River Golf Course, Joe Cook and his crew used meticulously prepared blueprints to build a house which Robin and I believed would be the last house we would ever call home.
Everything had gone relatively as planned; well as those of you who have built a house surely know no building project goes exactly as planned. For some reason, and a reason not known by me even to this day, the exterior paint on two of the six French doors began to peel. Now, as a child, I spent several summers at my grandparent’s house on the town’s North Kings Highway street but I found that as an adult and homeowner, living in Noel was much different than my time spent there as a twelve-year-old working at the miniature golf course on Noel’s Main Street.
My friend guaranteed me that Lewis Helt was the man for the job. I was assured that Louis was a competent man in many facets of home repairs but he was an especially proficient painter. “Well, he does have a few quirks that you city people may not be used to but he’s honest and doesn’t charge an arm and a leg.” That endorsement was good enough for me and I decided to give the man who came highly recommended a call.
Lewis seemed to be a hard man to get in touch with but after several unanswered phone calls, a woman finally answered the ringing telephone. I asked to speak with Lewis but was told he wasn’t at home, however, I was given the option of leaving a call-back name and telephone number which I did. “He’s out working somewhere but when I see him I’ll tell him to call you,” the woman stated.
For two long days I awaited that conspicuously silent telephone to ring but it never did. Robin was not a patient person by nature and on the morning of the third day without a call from the painter she let her feelings be known. “The heck with that Lewis guy, or whatever his name is. Let’s get ahold of someone else and get those doors painted.”
As I opened the kitchen drawer that was home to the myriad of telephone books for the Southwest Missouri counties and towns a loud sound caught my attention. The sound was coming from the driveway and I could only assume that some sort of vehicle, and one in need of a new muffler, had pulled into the driveway. The sound of a slammed car door caused me to close the drawer and walk to the front door.
Opening the front door brought the sight of a man dressed in paint-stained white overalls into view. This had to be Lewis I silently surmised as I approached him. “Hi, you must be Lewis.” “Yes sir, are you Stan,” he asked. “Yeah,” and as Robin’s image came into the corner of my eye I introduced her, “and this is my wife, Robin.” “Hi, Mrs. Fine.” “Please, call me Robin.” “Okay,” he said as he smiled.
Robin and I explained that we wanted two French doors painted. “What color do you want them painted,” Lewis asked. “The same color as they are now.” “No problem,” Lewis replied. It was agreed that Lewis would get the original color code from an old paint can which we conveniently retained.
“When can you do the job,” Robin bluntly asked. After Lewis’ mind calculated time and as he maneuvered that bit of Copenhagen Long Cut Wintergreen tobacco in his cheek he had an answer to the inquiry. “First thing the day after tomorrow; that’ll give me time to get the paint.” Robin was determined to obtain every detail regarding the project. “And how long will it take?” “No more than a day.” Once more Robin spoke and this was the deciding question. “How much will it cost?” Lewis thought for a moment then said, almost as if asking permission. “Well, would $50.00 plus the cost of the paint be too much?” I knew that Robin couldn’t spit the answering words from her mouth quickly enough. “That sounds like a fair price I guess. You’ve got the job.”
As promised Lewis did appear two days later. He parked his truck on the grass near the driveway; I assumed to allow our car to be removed from the garage if needed. “That’s smart and considerate,” Robin remarked. Lewis had a plan which would cause little or no mess and expedite the job. He would remove the two doors and place them on a pair of wooden saw horses in the front lawn near the Red Bud tree. There he would apply the burgundy red paint and return the doors to their hinges once the paint had sufficient time to cure. “That’s fine”, Robin said. “We have hidden screens in each side of the door’s opening which can be brought together. When closed the screens will keep the annoying bugs outside where they belong.”
Robin, and I’ll admit I as well, occasionally glanced through the living room window to check on Lewis’ progress. He was as busy as the proverbial beaver. It was somewhere around noon as I recall that Robin first commented about the painter’s absence.
“Lewis isn’t out there,” she said. “The doors are still on the saw horses but his truck is gone.” “He probably went to lunch. After all, he has to eat doesn’t he?”
The hours and the afternoon passed without any sign of Lewis. Robin frequently reminded me of his absence as the dark of night hours slipped by. She must have forgotten that I was fully aware of the large and conspicuous opening where a duo of doors once hung.
Robin and I heard the sound of Lewis’ El Camino the next morning as he backed it into his grassy parking spot. Robin stormed out of the house determined to make her dissatisfaction known. “Where were you yesterday afternoon? We had a big hole in our living room.” “Sorry Robin, but it was such a nice sunny day that I just had to go over to Opal Hatfield’s pond and fish. She lets me fish there as long as I fry up a mess of fish for her. I’ll have these here doors hung in a couple of hours.”
“I hope this paint lasts longer than that old paint did,” Robin, still seething, remarked. Lewis smiled as he moved the paintbrush up and down in a large plastic turpentine filled cup; “That’s darn good paint. It’ll outlive me.” Robin soon absolved Lewis of any wrongdoing and laughed when she later told that story over and over again.
Noel is a small town and no one can hide from sight for long and so it was with Lewis. I often saw him driving that old El Camino with saw horses and partially filled cans of paint rolling about in its bed. I recall that when asked what he was up to Lewis would speak of several small projects that he needed to finish but without exception, he always talked about one client in particular.
Lewis always mentioned the work he was doing for Mary Jane Bright. Mary Jane owned a home with some land on the outskirts of Noel and Louis was regularly in her employment. He knocked down the grass and weeds around the pond, repaired whatever needed fixing and most important of all, fed the deer. Lewis often told me that Mary Jane wanted to keep those wild deer fed. I could tell by the way he talked about her that Lewis considered Mary Jane more than an employer, she was a good friend. I’m told, however, that she found the missing floorboard in that old El Camino to be somewhat of a minor annoyance.
On a cold January day of this year, Louis fell asleep, but this sleep was like none before. This sleep would have no awakening. Louie, as he was known to his many friends, would fall into a sleep that would last for the rest of his life.
The medical experts said Louis lost his ability to think but I chose to believe that in that sleep; that final sleep, my friend Lewis dreamt of the old El Camino, feeding Mary Jane’s deer and he dreamed of Jeannie. At least that’s the way I want to remember Lewis’ last few hours.
The paint on the French doors looks as good today as the day that Lewis splashed color on them. Sadly though, Lewis was correct. That paint did outlive him. Lewis Ray Helt, the handyman who could fix almost anything, the master painter who used sweeping brush strokes to put new color to old wood; that is when the fish weren’t biting, died on January 26th of this year.
As Louie worked he often thought of worms on hooks and favorite fishing holes. When the urge to tantalize a bass with that worm became too great Lewis often remarked, “Be back in a short.”
Thanks to Lewis’ best friend and companion of more than five and twenty years, Jeannie.