Exploring the art of prose


The Whites by Dustin M. Hoffman

There’s something so appealing about the use of the first-person plural point-of-view. It pulls the reader in and often makes us feel as though we, too, are part of the collective voice. The voice can expand to include all its members, but the voice can also shrink, to show us the individuals that make up the collective. In some cases, such as in Justin Torres’ We The Animals or Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, an individuated voice breaks off from the collective, reflecting the content of the piece in its form.

In “The Whites,” Dustin M. Hoffman uses the first-person plural voice to setup an us-versus-them dynamic. The new painter, Simon, is not part of the collective voice; he is the subject of ridicule. Who among us has not been in a situation where we feel alone, confronted by a group who act as one, a group whose members seem to know everything that we don’t? What’s fascinating about this piece is that while the voice is aligned with the group, our sympathies lie in part with Simon because we recognize the inequity at play. Hoffman uses the collective voice to show us how we are each part of a larger group and yet we are also, always, alone.


We wear only white. Sneaker to cap. It’s the housepainter way. Except for the day Simon’s ass was splotched brown. From mid-thigh to lower-back, he was coated in eggshell-sheen Mocha Morning, looking like he shat himself, like he suffered from unrelenting explosive diarrhea. And if a guy looks like shit, you give him shit. All day we rechristened him: Hershey squirter, the brown geyser, Mt. Saint Smellen, shit box, shit slacks, shit head, and when we all grew hungry around lunchtime, Mr. Shit Sandwich.

Simon tried to ignore us at first, chomped his upper lip and escaped down the stairs to caulk windows in the foyer. But then we lined up, leaning across the balcony to smoke-break while we pontificated on the weakness of his sphincter paired with his quaking bowels, and when he refused to give us a rise, we flicked our cigarette butts at him. Then Ray chucked a wet roller nap and slashed a brand-new gash of brown across his back. Simon still ignored us, and we never wanted the day to end.

We knew Simon had just bought those gleamingly bleach-white overalls from Sherwin Williams yesterday. We knew he was proud. We knew he thought this was his final rite of passage, regalia to celebrate graduating to master craftsman, even though he’d been pushing paint less than a week and most don’t last past that. The whites cost him three hours of labor, and that’s four packs of smokes or a tank of gas or an eighth of midgrade grass or a bottle of bottom-shelf tequila that gets you just as drunk as the top shelf. Those overalls could’ve been anything worth having, but instead Simon wasted 180 minutes of back-rolling with the eighteen-inch behind the sprayer. Would he trade those overalls for 180 minutes of sanding, of choking on limestone dust, or scraping maybe-lead-paint at the top of a thirty-foot extension, or, fuck, 180 minutes cleaning up a site after us, after we’ve painted it up perfect and left crumples of McDonald’s wrappers and spit-kissed cigarette butts and cups of cold piss in every corner? Any trade of labor for uniform is injustice, and Simon suited up before anyone even forced him. We had too much reason to hate the fool.

Anyway, Simon was the dumbass who backed into a freshly sprayed wall. Ray had let him man the sprayer gun for the first time, and we all saw that shit-eating grin crease his cheeks behind the respirator. Simon was even doing all right, waving the fan smooth enough in the corners not to goop up any drips. But he got proud, and when he stepped back to admire his work, he stamped his ass into the brown wall behind him.

Our cruelty was Simon’s own damn fault, yet he wouldn’t accept his lumps. He picked up the wet nap Ray had thrown into his back, and he hurled it back at us. We didn’t flinch. He missed by miles, and the nap smooched the banister brown. He absentmindedly wiped his nap-throwing hand against the chest of his overalls, and like magic he’d made a brown palmprint. When he noticed, he panicked and tried to rag it off, which, of course, spread the smear magnificently larger. We busted up. It was too glorious. Ray couldn’t take it, said he was going to pee himself and ran off to piss out the second-floor master-bedroom window.

“We’ll see who’s laughing when you have to do this yourself. I quit,” Simon said to our crew who had been just fine before he was hired, who would be just fine through a hundred more hirings and firings. He stormed out the door.

That’s how we know when you won’t last. Paper-thin skin, short fuse, no sense of pleasure in the harassment. If you require pride on the jobsite, you’re a target and soon a goner. Was it easy for Ray when we made him dump our five-gallon piss bucket every day for the first week and we kept filling them to the brim with water just to make sure he’d slosh our diluted urine on himself? Manny was a model of humility when he drove away waving like a prom queen after we’d painted a giant cock and balls on the windshield of his beater pickup. We threw Whitaker’s keys onto the roof eleven times when we found out he didn’t like heights. And Kelly still goes quiet when we talk about what we did to his double cheeseburger.

But we didn’t do shit to Simon. He couldn’t stand not being the Michael Jordan of painting. Us, we failed out of welding school and got laid off from GM and couldn’t handle zapping pigs and slitting throats all day and started a taxi business and then ran over an old lady named Irena’s big toe. Painters must know how to absorb failure. That’s why we wear all white, the most common color. White ceiling, white trim, white primer, white spackle, white caulk. And then there are the hundred-thousand shades of almost-white every apartment complex chooses, every spec house, every rental, every indecisive or anal-retentive homeowner—they go white. We know how to swallow white.

So tough fucking luck Simon clumsied his ass into a brown wall that we then repainted. The more we thought about it, the more our amusement fermented into bitterness. We were caulking the windows Simon was supposed to caulk and watching his big brown ass out the window as he smoked cigarettes and swiped at his phone and shook his head at the sky. He lingered like paint fumes. We pulled our caulk gun triggers in tandem, snapped off beads, ran wet fingers to smooth the seams.

Simon stomped back inside. “Okay, so I need this job, okay?” He spat at the floor. “I can’t leave, okay? I retract my quitting.”

None of us had anything to say because the boss wasn’t here and he had never been here and we probably wouldn’t see him today or tomorrow. Working for On-a-Roll Painting was our salvation and our purgatory because Boss didn’t check backgrounds or require references or proof of citizenship or anything. He paid cash and he paid shit, seven bucks an hour, worse than any painting business in town, but we had work.

“I stabbed a guy, all right,” Simon said. “I stabbed a guy and I don’t know what happened to him. I haven’t been anywhere near that town in a year. Bunch of people saw me do it, okay. Simon’s not even my name,” Simon said.

We kept caulking, our eyes trained on the tip of the tubes we’d sliced at perfect forty-five-degree angles. Manny’s gun clicked its spring like a shot in the fallen-silent house.

“The guy I stabbed was an asshole,” Simon said. “We went to high school together like eight years ago. That night, he told me he always knew I’d never be anything. He said that and walked away from me, pumped a quarter into this old Pac-man arcade game. And what’s so great about him? Maybe he’s a goddamn accountant or he plays drums in a shitty bar band or works the plumbing section at Home Depot. Nobody from our town was much more than nothing.”

Manny offered Simon a caulk gun. Talk is easier while holding a tool. It makes you feel a little more here, a little less as invisible as the caulk globs we smear on our white Dickies.

Simon stepped up to a window in the middle of us. His brown ass looked like a hole against all the gray sheetrock. “So I grabbed one of those rolls of silverware off a table, and it happened to have a steak knife inside. Had to be a steak knife and not some worthless butter knife that you usually find in there. I move in close enough to see Pac-Man’s pixels over his shoulder. I remember watching him eat three ghosts and he almost had a fourth and then I buried that knife in his side. People were screaming before I was out the door. I drove all night until I was out of gas.”

We finished caulking the downstairs before we knocked off. Best to end when you can let a whole story dry and settle overnight.

Simon still hadn’t said anything, because he’d spilled enough. He spread that mess all over us. You can always tell a painter’s experience with how he handles paint on the carpet. Some will stress it and make a big fuss with cleaners and cussing. Others will move on and pretend someone else did it. The veteran painter, though, he bows his head low like praying and then dribbles out a stream of spit. There’s something magic about saliva that cuts right through. If he doesn’t have a rag handy, he wipes with his shirt. Spit, wipe, repeat, until you leave no trace. Only we will always know there’s spit in your carpet.

But we’d teach this to Simon later. For that night of quitting time, Ray distributed the Coors cans. We drank from tailgates. We busted open a fresh gallon of ceiling white, and Manny took up the brush. He swiped it over the brown on Simon’s new overalls, over his chest, over his ass, up his back. Even under a few coats of paint, even with the brown erased, we couldn’t quit imagining a blossom of red blooming through Simon’s whites, through Ray’s and Manny’s whites, through us all.

DUSTIN M. HOFFMAN is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewThe Adroit JournalWashington Square ReviewWitness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com

Author’s Note

I find the secret languages of occupations fascinating, the jargon, the tools, the tasks, the verbs of work, the insider perspective, the mysterious “Employees Only” doors. I keep writing these stories, and I keep returning to the “we” narrator to voice them. Collective first-person point of view seems such an organic fit for stories about work, since, so often, our work is done in crews, departments, divisions, networks, teams. The group is essential to work, and the “we” captures the idealized sense of camaraderie. Yet, if it was just all harmony and community, the point of view would be terrible for fiction. “Only trouble is interesting,” Janet Burroway says. “Tension is the mother of fiction,” Jerome Stern says. We only need to nudge that collective point of view for it to bare its teeth. Within the safety of community prowls the horror of lost identity. In the very nature of the telling, an individual “I” is disappearing, drowning in a collective consciousness. Again, this seems natural to the working world, where we struggle to preserve identity against jobs that ask us to train and calibrate until we’re all thinking and acting in robotic synchronization, whether we’re talking about a factory line or making a hamburger or grading by a rubric. This push and pull of identity creates a useful conflict for me as a writer: “We” represents a voice simultaneously finding its community and losing its individual identity.

And if there’s a collective “us” then there must exist a “them.” Again, the collective point of view comes fully equipped with natural conflict when from its first utterance competing factions emerge, an in-group and an out-group, an “othering” that, for my fiction, so often materializes in class consciousness. I wanted this story to immediately imply an “othering,” which is why I chose this title that seems to speak to race, but then the group quickly reveals a job-specific focus on uniforms and working identities—the rookies versus the veterans, the hopeful versus the jaded. Painters dress in all white as a means of camouflaging mistakes, but there’s a theme of invisibility there as well. You can tell a lot about a painter’s experience and perhaps even their skill by the color slashed onto their clothes. We hide the white paint well, but if you screw up with the wrong color paint, you’re wearing it all day, probably for months until you burn through your uniform. The vulnerability and exposure of having to wear your mistakes was the inspiration for the story. It’s a physical way to show discord within the working community.

I recently saw a painter walking into a gas station wearing a giant blotch of brown on his ass, and it took me right back to my painting days. I could imagine all the harassment that poor guy would be taking. I’d been there many times, and it hurts to be on the outside, and that hurt is good for fiction. That’s the thrill of the collective “we,” the separation from the herd, the painful accountability for one’s identity, the pressure to stand up for yourself or endure insults. Exposed and ridiculed, the defenses of the group disappear. In this story, Simon smolders under the spotlight, outside the group, and this is where a character, a human, has to make a choice to be exiled or initiated and baptized.

DUSTIN M. HOFFMAN is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewThe Adroit JournalWashington Square ReviewWitness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com