Cynthia interviewed ten painters before hiring Mark to paint the two-bedroom, California Craftsman house she shared with her husband in Sacramento. She loved the little house, with its low-pitched, gabled roof, wood siding, and interior woodwork. Mark was a tall, strapping young man with the most captivating smile she’d seen in a long time. From the moment she first saw him on her front porch in his paint-splattered clothes on a warm May morning, she knew he would be the right one. She wanted a real artist, someone who would get the colors just right and take pains to protect her antique furniture. No slob would work on her house! With his intense dark eyes and sandy hair falling across his forehead, Mark had the aura of someone who would be painting canvases if he weren’t painting houses. He’d be the heir of the expressionists, she thought, imagining him creating the rhythmic contours of Franz Marc’s The Large Blue Horses.
After she took him through the house, pointing out what needed to be done, he said, “Nice place, but it sure needs some paint.”
“Do you have references?”
He handed her a list with three names and phone numbers.
She called only the first one. The man who answered said he was very satisfied with Mark’s work. That was all she needed to know before asking Mark to start the following Monday.
* * *
The first task would be restoration of the redwood paneling, molding, and ceiling beams that had been painted over in the 1950s. Before Mark arrived, Cynthia moved the maple table, stained-glass lamp, and Chinese rug from the entry hall, where he would begin.
As he sanded the picture molding and window frame, clouds of paint dust filled not only the entry hall but also the living room. Paint chips settled on her grandmother’s oak tables and bookshelf and lodged in the settee and Princess Bokhara rug. She hadn’t imagined there would be such a mess. Why hadn’t he warned her?
“I want all the furniture covered,” she said. “I know it isn’t in perfect condition, but we’re trying to take care of it. And please cover the rug. My husband and I will move it to the basement tonight.”
When she checked on Mark again, he had covered the furniture in the half of the living room closest to where he was working.
The next day he brought two swarthy men with him. Sal and Dean worked in the living room while Mark continued in the hall. Still, only half of the furniture in the living room was covered. Paint chips and paint dust were abundant, again landing everywhere, and now spreading into the dining room. Sal and Dean set their tools on the coffee table.
Cynthia didn’t want Mark to know how angry she was. Even though he wasn’t being careful about the furniture, she thought he would be a good painter. She hoped her instincts were right, that she wasn’t just blinded by his good looks. When the work was finished, she wanted to have a party to show off the house and introduce him to her friends.
Her husband, Jerry, a mild-mannered engineer, as short and slender as Mark was tall and muscular, suggested that they get their old sheets out of the basement and cover everything themselves. Once every surface in the living room and dining room was draped, she approached Mark.
“It really is very important to us that the furniture be protected,” she said, trying to be polite, not wanting to antagonize him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied acidly. “It’s not my fault that when I came here yesterday, it looked like you expected guests for tea.”
Why was he blaming her? Couldn’t he have told her how to prepare? She’d never hired a painter before.
She was surprised by his sarcasm. At twenty-nine, she was an attractive woman with long blond hair. Men were usually solicitous and flirtatious with her, and she didn’t understand what was going on with Mark. He was speaking to her as though she were an uptight, middle-aged schoolmarm, and she started to fear that hiring him had been a mistake.
A book designer and graphic artist whose studio was at home, she intended to keep working while Mark painted the house. When he was painting the bedroom where she worked, she would move her computer and light table to the kitchen. Jerry, on the other hand, was going to stay as far away from the redecorating as possible. An asthmatic, he foresaw more dust, paint fumes, and stripper fumes than he cared to inhale, and he planned a camping trip to the Sierra almost as soon as they made definite plans to paint the house.
The third morning, when Cynthia woke with a headache that she assumed was from tension, Jerry was already half way to Tahoe. The redecorating was turning out to be an ordeal from which she too would have liked to flee. Instead, she decided to pick up some paint chips, then go see Audrey, a friend since their high school days in Burney, a small town in central California about 200 miles north of Sacramento.
Audrey—who taught history, mostly at night, at Sacramento City College—could help her select the colors for the house.
Although Cynthia had lived in Sacramento since she and Audrey were freshmen at Sac State, she was still amazed by the freeways, traffic, gleaming Capitol building, and sprawling tracts. It was all so different from remote and peaceful Burney. Now, though, she was thinking not about her adopted city, but about the ruggedly handsome painter who seemed to dislike her. She was almost in tears by the time she arrived at Audrey’s condo with the chips.
Over coffee, she said, “We shouldn’t have bothered with the painting and woodwork. We’ll have to move when we have kids.”
“You’ve been complaining for four years about how the previous owners ruined that house. You’re such a perfectionist, you’d never last there, at least not happily, without fixing it up. Besides, you’ll get more money when you’re ready to move.” Audrey ran a hand through her mop of brown curls.
They started comparing colors, holding up chips to walls and discussing the psychological impact of each shade. By dinnertime the selections were Heath, an off-white shade tending toward beige for the studio/bedroom; Stone White, a whiter off-white, for the living and dining rooms; Dove Call, a grayish off-white, for Cynthia and Jerry’s bedroom; Peach Parfait, which did indeed look edible, for the bathroom; and Aztec Sun, a glorious yellow, for the kitchen. Cynthia’s headache was gone.
When she got home, Mark had already left. The house reeked of stripper fumes. She fixed herself a meal of fruit and yogurt but couldn’t eat. Suddenly she was nauseated, and her headache was worse than ever. Tension wasn’t the only problem, maybe not even the main one: Jerry had been right to avoid breathing these chemicals. She had a pang of annoyance that he hadn’t tried to talk her out of staying.
She packed a few clothes, grabbed her computer and the dog-eared copy of Ulysses she’d been reading for the past two months, and headed back to Audrey’s, where she would stay until the work was done. The next morning she returned only to give Mark a key and the paint chips.
“Please get small cans to start,” she said. “I want to see the colors on the walls to check my choices.”
He rolled his eyes. “No need for that. These colors are fine.”
“You’re probably right, but I’d still like to check.”
“It’s a waste of time!” His irritation bordered on anger.
Now she knew for sure she’d made a mistake in hiring him. Their relationship was like a bad marriage. She was tempted to fire him on the spot, but she didn’t want to start over, interviewing more painters or reconsidering the ones she’d rejected. She wanted to salvage the situation and get the work done, so she didn’t argue with him further.
* * *
On the eighth day Mark finished the stripping; on the ninth it was time to apply stain to the woodwork, and Cynthia came back to select the color. He put mahogany stain on a small area inside one of the drawers of the built-in china closet in the dining room.
Examining it, she said, “It’s too red.”
He applied honey maple to another small area.
Looking exasperated, he dipped his right index finger into the mahogany stain and smeared it on the drawer. Then he dipped the same finger into the honey maple stain and smeared it over the mahogany. He was not smiling as he waited for her response.
“Still too red.”
More vigorously, almost angrily, he dipped his finger again into the mahogany stain and smeared some on the drawer. He repeated this procedure twice with the honey maple stain, each time adding brown to the red.
“Is that okay?” he challenged her.
She was distressed. She wanted to take the drawer to a store and have samples of a dozen different stains applied. However, she knew she should have done this earlier.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“Look, lady, I can’t make decisions for you. It’s your house; you’re the boss. I’ll paint it purple if you want me to.”
If Jerry were home, she would say that she was going to get samples of several more stains so that she and her husband could select just the right one. But she couldn’t even reach Jerry by phone; there was no cell reception where he was camping, deep in the Desolation Wilderness in the El Dorado National Forest. If she went out to get samples, Mark would know that it was she, and she alone, who was holding him up. She could imagine him telling people that he lost half a day’s work because this picky lady had to try every stain they sold at Ace.
She thought of the box of 64 Crayola Crayons she’d had as a child, how she’d carefully select just the right color, then stay within the lines of her coloring book. She also thought about the novel whose jacket she was currently designing, with a beautiful, sepia-toned photograph of mountains framed by a background just the right shade of forest green. It was unfathomable to her that someone whose business was painting neither appreciated her eye nor respected her belief in the importance of color.
“Where did you get the mahogany stain?” she asked.
“It’s left over from refinishing my furniture.”
“And the honey maple?”
“That too, but it’s more expensive, and I don’t have very much.”
“I like the two parts honey maple to one part mahogany.” Did she really like it, or did she just think it would do? Her head was spinning.
Mark, Dean, and Sal were still working at eight p.m. when she came to check the day’s progress. All of the woodwork in the living room and dining room had been stained, and they were just finishing up in the front hall. Everything was a rich reddish brown, redder than she had expected, but she didn’t want to say so. Mark had been working nine days without a day off. Today, he had put in twelve hours. She wanted to say something positive.
“Of course,” he said triumphantly, smiling.
Mark took the tenth day off, which gave Cynthia the opportunity to think about and examine the stain. It was definitely redder than she had envisioned. Was it okay anyhow? Ever since she and Jerry had moved in just after her twenty-fifth birthday, they had been planning to strip and refinish the woodwork. This was important to her. She compared the samples in the drawer to the wood on the walls. It looked like Mark had used the straight mahogany stain. She felt cheated.
That night she called Mark. “Please don’t varnish the woodwork yet. There’s a problem. I think the stain is too red.”
“What! Last night you said the woodwork was beautiful.”
“It does look very nice; it just isn’t exactly what I wanted.”
“Last night you liked it. You oughta go with your first impression.”
“Well, I want to talk about it more tomorrow, before you do any more work.”
* * *
Mark’s face was set in a grimace when he entered the house. He was ready for battle. She had planned to ask for the receipt for the honey maple stain, but now she was afraid to. He looked so angry!
He glared at her. “The wood has absorbed the stain. I’d have to sand off a quarter inch of wood to get rid of it. You don’t want that, do you?”
“No, of course not. But aren’t there other things you could do, like putting a brown stain over the red?”
He made a deep groaning sound, like a wounded animal.
Was it her fault? Was she responsible because she was out all day when he was applying the stain instead of at home supervising?
“I’ll pay you extra for anything you do to change the color of the stain,” she added. She and Jerry couldn’t really afford to spend more, and she was immediately sorry she’d made this offer.
Mark took a deep breath, exhaled loudly, and gave a slight laugh. “I could try using paint thinner to get off some of the stain, but you know the varnish will change the way this looks. It’ll make it darker and bring out the grain.”
“Put varnish on a small area so that I can see how it looks.”
Varnished, the wood looked darker and browner, and as Mark had predicted, the grain was more pronounced. It wasn’t exactly what Cynthia had envisioned; nevertheless, it looked good.
“It’s fine. You can varnish the rest of it.”
“Are you sure?” Mark looked like he might burst into laughter.
The next day when she arrived, he had already painted the living room and front hall and was working on the dining room.
“Wow, it’s really white!” Was this really Stone White, she wondered. “I didn’t think it would be this white.”
Mark’s eyes widened and his posture stiffened. “I think you don’t know what you want. I think that’s your problem.”
“I know what I want. The problem is that things turn out differently from what I expect.”
“It won’t be so bright when it dries.”
Busy examining the walls, Cynthia didn’t answer.
“Did you hear me?” His voice was louder and less pleasant.
“Yes.” She had begun to examine the paint cans, not only for the living room and dining room, but also for the rest of the house. They were from Best Paints, not Bryson-O’Reilly, where she had selected the chips.
“Knowing that I’m so particular, you shouldn’t have gotten a different kind of paint without my approval.”
“It’s better paint—and I matched your chips exactly.”
“I want to see the colors for the other rooms before you paint anything else.”
The colors didn’t exactly match her chips, but they were close, so she didn’t ask him to repaint anything or return any paint, but she wanted him to understand her point of view, to see that her behavior didn’t imply that she was fickle or didn’t know what she wanted. She tried to explain: “I always put a lot of effort into making decisions. There’s nothing wrong with that. For example, I work as a book designer, and sometimes I like to see a page set in several different typefaces before I decide which one is right for a particular book. I also like to see things in different sizes, like a chapter title in both eighteen- and twenty-four-point type, before I make my final choice. In many decisions, not just those concerning book design, there’s an opportunity for trial and error. I’m not bound to my first choice.”
Mark nodded, seeming to understand.
Feeling encouraged, she continued. “For example, when I buy clothes, the things I like on the rack aren’t necessarily what I like once I try things on.”
“Well, I know what I like.” He snorted.
It was hopeless. They were mismatched, and there wasn’t going to be much communication. How could she have been so wrong about him? He regarded her as a wishy-washy woman who had trouble making decisions. He didn’t understand that she savoredmaking decisions. She decided to stay out of his way. The less talking she did, the better, because she had a knack for evoking his contempt.
She was still concerned about the furniture, though, and when he started working on the front bedroom, she asked, “Do you have enough tarps to cover everything?”
The next time she came in, the bed and mattress were covered, not with a tarp, but with dust and paint chips from the prep work. When she pointed it out, he said, “It’ll be easy to clean later.”
The next day, when she noticed that the floors in the back of the house were getting grubby, she asked Dean to remind Mark that only the floors in the living and dining rooms would be refinished, the rest had to be kept clean.
Except for these two incidents, she did not question or criticize Mark further. Despite everything, she still hoped for good work from him and still wanted to invite him to her party.
* * *
Mark finished on a Sunday, the twenty-first day. Eager to inspect the work, Cynthia and Jerry came from Audrey’s as soon as he called. It was three o’clock.
The painting and woodwork restoration were beautifully done. There was no question about that. There was no paint left on the woodwork, and all of the painted surfaces were smooth and evenly painted. The problem was the mess. All horizontal surfaces were covered with paint dust; the floors throughout the house were coated with paint, spackle, and unidentifiable gunk; the ash cabinets in the kitchen and much of the furniture appeared to have been sprayed with a fine mist of paint.
Mark said, “Well?”
Jerry said, “We expected you to do more cleanup.”
Cynthia nodded. “We’ll help, but you need to do more.”
The more she examined the house, the more alarmed she became. The painters had evidently spilled stripper or paint thinner on the antique Philco radio and oak bookshelf in the living room: there were large splotches where the stain and varnish had been completely removed.
The top of the buffet was sticky. When she asked Mark about it, he said, “I had to refinish it. Someone set something on it when it was only covered with a sheet. That was the only mistake we made.”
“It looks to me like you also made mistakes on the radio and the bookshelf in the living room.”
“Those spots were there when we started.”
“They were not!”
Audrey, whose mother was coming to visit from Burney the following day, expected Cynthia and Jerry to move back home that night, and Cynthia wanted to move into a clean house. Mark used steel wool to remove paint spots from the furniture. He also dusted the furniture and cleaned the spots on the floor as Cynthia pointed out what needed to be done. At four o’clock he said he was ready to leave.
“I’m not paying you until this house is a lot cleaner,” she fumed. “There’s still a lot to do, and I shouldn’t need to point everything out. You should be able to see for yourself what to do.”
“What should I do next?”
“Clean the cover of the thermostat. That wasn’t even a month old, and now it’s so dirty I can’t even read the temperature.”
Each time he completed a task, he came back to Cynthia, put his hands on his hips, and said, “Are you satisfied yet?” His tone became progressively more surly, his expression more belligerent.
As she mopped, vacuumed, dusted, and used steel wool on the furniture and kitchen cabinets, her anxiety rose. The paint dust had worked its way into the grain of much of the furniture; the gunk wouldn’t come off the floors; the steel wool scratched the finish off the cabinets. She didn’t want to pay him off. She wanted to give him three-quarters of the money they owed and negotiate a settlement for the mess and damage later.
He said, “I’m here now; I want to finish the job now. If you aren’t satisfied, tell me what to do next.”
Jerry took Cynthia aside. “Three men worked here for three weeks. They’re barely getting minimum wage. You should take that into consideration.”
It did not seem to Cynthia that working for minimum wage was an excuse to leave a mess and damage the furniture. It wasn’t her fault that Mark had underbid the job. But it was eight o’clock, this had been going on for five hours, and it was two against one. She wrote Mark a check.
After he left, she looked again at the thermostat cover. It was still impossible to read the temperature; evidently the plastic had been damaged by the paint stripper. Then she looked again at the oak bookcase, which had been in perfect condition before Mark started. She turned to Jerry and screamed, “This is your fault! You had no business going away. You should have stayed with me at Audrey’s. Would it have killed you to put on a mask and check on him now and then? Now you’ve let him rip us off! He should do all the cleanup and repair all the damage. He knew you were on his side. I had to give him the check.” She was so angry she was shaking.
“You can stop payment on it.” Jerry did not seem the least bit upset.
She called Mark. “I’d like you to come back to refinish the oak bookcase. It was in perfect condition. I’d also like you to replace the thermostat cover.”
“I’ll be there Tuesday.”
“I’m going to stop payment on the check. If you come by tomorrow, I’ll give you a new one, but I’m going to withhold ten percent for the work on Tuesday. I’m not asking you to do anything about the furniture that needed refinishing anyhow.” She felt magnanimous in that he had done so much damage and she was asking for so little.
What! I already said I’d do what you want! Why don’t you trust me?
“We had some work done on the foundation recently. The contractor asked to be paid when a few things remained to be done, like cleaning up and putting the basement door back on. I paid him and he promised to come back that afternoon and finish. Well, that was months ago, and he hasn’t been back. It took my husband a whole day to finish everything.”
“Some other guy ripped you off, so you’re taking revenge on me,” Mark bellowed.
“It isn’t revenge.”
“Well, what else is it?” He paused. “I know. It’s that you don’t trust me. You never did.”
“I wouldn’t have given you the key to my house and let you work in the same room with my furniture if I didn’t trust you.”
“Your furniture! You don’t own anything but a bunch of old junk.”
“I own antiques. Some of them have been in my family a long time and are quite valuable.”
“Your coffee table looks better than it did before I started. The work I did on it more than compensates for any other damage.”
He was talking about the buffet, but she didn’t try to correct him.
There was more: “You’re so picky you want everything to be perfect. You’re gonna make me come back to your house and do another week of work.”
“That isn’t true.”
“I’ve kept other customers waiting because of you. I’m a week behind. I’ve kept telling them there’s this picky lady I have to satisfy. I’ve worked on your house for three weeks! I’m hardly making any money on this job. I oughtta put a lien on your house.”
“I know it took longer than you expected. That’s why I’m willing to help with the cleanup and am not asking you to repair everything you damaged.”
“You’re not doing me any favors. I don’t want to hear that baloney. You’re crazy, impossible to please!” He was hollering. “I’ve kissed up to you long enough, and I’m not gonna kiss up to you no more!”
After he hung up, Cynthia called the bank.
* * *
When the phone rang the following morning, she knew who it was before answering.
“Hi, I’m really sorry about the things I said last night.” Mark sounded friendly and sincere.
“Thank you. I understand.”
“We’re both adults,” he continued. “I’m sure we can work this out. I’ll allow you twenty dollars on the thermostat cover, and I’ll come over to refinish your bookcase this afternoon. Maybe we can even be friends again in a couple of hours.”
“Wonderful!” She still wanted to be friends, too.
“But I’d really appreciate it if you could give me a new check now. I want you to trust me. That’s important to me. I worked on your house for three weeks, and I’ve never given you no reason not to trust me. Besides, I really need the money. I need to pay my men, and I got bills that are due.”
When she answered the door, he was smiling that charming smile that had won her over the first day. He held a drop cloth in one hand.
“I want to put this under the bookcase so I won’t mess up the floor while I work. I’ve already bought the stain. Light oak stain and high gloss varnish, right?”
Handing him a new check for the full amount, she had only the slightest pang of doubt. Trusting him seemed like the right thing to do.
“Thanks. After I cash the check, I’m going to pay a couple bills. I’ll be back in about an hour.” He was beaming like a schoolboy.
Cynthia didn’t worry when Mark did not come back in an hour or two. After three or four, she still wanted to believe he’d be back. She waited until after dinner to call him.
When his voicemail came on, a sob rose in her chest, her mind a blur of images: gunk on the bedroom floor, paint-thinner splotches on the bookcase, her younger brother’s scribbles in her coloring books, the favorite skirt her mother ruined by washing it in hot water, the acrylic finish Jerry applied over the dirt on their kitchen floor. It seemed that no one else was ever as careful as she was. Stood up and outnumbered, she hung up.
Lucille Lang Day (http://lucillelangday.com) is the author of a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, which received a 2013 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2013 Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. She has also published a children’s book and eight poetry collections and chapbooks, including The Curvature of Blue, The Book of Answers, and Infinities. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in more than 100 literary magazines, such as The Cincinnati Review, The Hudson Review, The MacGuffin, Paterson Literary Review and The Threepenny Review. She lives in Oakland, California.