Journalist Marty Carlock, a native of Texas who now lives near Boston, Mass., was a regular contributor to The Boston Globe for almost two decades. Author of A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston, she currently writes for Sculpture and Landscape Architecture magazines and The Internet Review of Books. Her short fiction has appeared in a dozen journals and quarterly publications. After years of journalistic obsession with facts, she says she finds it refreshing to make things up. Her avocations include hiking, birding, gardening and drinking wine.
It always blows my mind how much you can learn about people, just being in their house. I have days when I could be tempted to be a burglar. After a day or two on the job I know their habits, where they keep stuff, the pathetic ruses they use to try to foil crooks, like setting timer lights and running the television when they’re gone. But I’m not. A night in the clink when I was a kid, caught with a couple of reefers, cured me of even thinking that way. Besides which, I have principles.
I have skill, too; pride in my work. I’m good with my hands and I know I’m good. People appreciate that. Women especially.
When I take a job it’s always an adventure. I mean, not by most people’s standards. There’s no death-defying, high-risk stuff. But you never know how things will turn out, whether people will be decent or assholes. It’s usually the guy who’s the asshole. The woman tends to be more reasonable. Though not always.
So when I stand there, right before I ring the doorbell, I try to guess. I try to imagine, from seeing the outside of the house, who lives there, what they are like. Then I ring, and it starts.
This time I see nice flowers and no kids’ toys in the yard; I figure it would be a couple of empty-nesters, country-club maybe, conservative. The house is pretty routine, raised ranch, part brick, part brown-stained shingle, white shutters, well maintained. The sort of thing built in the 60s before people caught on how hard that layout is to heat in this climate. Also most people of this type want that Olde Neuw England look, even in a new house, to give themselves the delusion they’re from Olde Money or something. The sort of house I call Phony Colonial.
The guy that opens the door is what I expected, horn rims, what hair he has is white. Shorter than me, but then I am medium tall. Comes in handy in my work. He introduces me to his wife, who is waiting at the top of the half-flight of stairs, and we go up. I can’t get a read on her. She looks as old as I am, and maybe I’m as old as the guy, but she’s not dressed like anybody 60-plus. Sweatshirt, baggy shorts that look like cut-off warm-ups, ratty sneakers. She’s got a couple of gray hairs, but her haircut is short and kind of funky, as if she can’t be bothered with it. Oddly – I notice this because I’m in the trade – there’s a smear of sea-aqua paint on one sleeve of her sweatshirt.
The guy, George, has a list. He takes me around, ticking off stuff. Some I wouldn’t bother with if I were him – touch up this switch plate, that floorboard – but my policy is to keep quiet unless asked for my opinion. I can see as we go around he’s one of those nit-picky perfectionists. He’s bugged about finger marks when you open the windows and the little chips a vacuum cleaner can take out of a baseboard. That doesn’t scare me; I do a quality job, and if I can’t do something I’m upfront about it, because nobody can. What begins to irritate me is, he wants top quality but he doesn’t want to pay top dollar. Is it worth doing this, he says, and I think about it and estimate the time, an hour, a day, whatever, never answering the question directly.
When we get to the window sash he wants touched up, I am clear and careful. ‘Painting sash is very, very time-consuming, Mr. Blacklow. It will add a lot.’
The wife is nodding. ‘I’ve done those windows. Takes forever.’ I look at her, surprised.
‘My wife is an artist,’ the guy says.
‘I do a lot of little repairs around here,’ she says. ‘And painting. But I can’t spare the time anymore.’ Grudgingly, George decides to let the window sash go, this time.
The kitchen has outdated vinyl wallpaper on it, a pattern of vegetable botanicals. ‘Never showed dirt,’ she says. ‘But we’re tired of it. Want to strip it off and paint the walls flat’.
Strip it? I explain what a bitch – I don’t use that word – of a job it would be. How if I strip it we might find the walls in terrible condition. How this vinyl is on tight and where it isn’t I can just cut away the loose stuff and fill. Sand and prime it. It would save a day’s work, maybe more. I can see George is conflicted; he is damn determined to get a quality job, but saving a day’s wages appeals to him.
He doesn’t totally understand the process, but I can see she does. They agree to do it, him dragging his feet.
She changes the subject without preamble. ‘Now my concept here is to do this wall a dark color and the other three a lighter, neutral color in the same tonality.’
He scowls. ‘It seems wacky to me.’
‘Think about it. I did the guest room with that one dark green wall, and it’s gorgeous. And the maroon walls in the bathroom. We’ve never regretted where we used color.’
‘It should all be the same color,’ he mutters.
‘Come on, let me show Harry the guest room and see what he thinks. He’s an expert.’
I am used to being in intimate parts of people’s houses, but suddenly I feel funny following this woman to a bedroom. I’m a bachelor and glad of it; I tried marriage once and didn’t like it. If you ask me, women are a separate species, no more understandable than fruit flies. George trails along behind.
The room has three lime-yellow walls you see when you walk in, but when you turn around the fourth wall is a deep hunter green. There’s a big landscape with a gold frame on it, and other smaller things in white mats that look terrific on the dark wall.
I blink. ‘That really pops out from that dark wall,’ I say. ‘I have to say, Mr. Blacklow, from my perspective, it really looks great.’
He’s frowning. He doesn’t like losing an argument – and my guess is, he doesn’t very often, or doesn’t think he does, and he never admits it to anybody. Especially his wife.
She wants a chili-pepper red on one kitchen wall and a lighter version of it on the others. I leave them some paint samples. I have a lot of prep work to do before we need to know the kitchen color. When I come back, they are still at odds. He likes red, but he wants a redder red; I’m thinking, he wants the color of a fire plug. She has picked a fox-fur color. ‘Trust me, George, these colors will look much more intense when you get a whole wall of it. This is red enough.’
And he thinks the lighter hue is too pink. It isn’t; it’s salmon; it has a lot of yellow in it. Then he shifts his ground: ‘I’d really like a maroon.’ She patiently flips out the color strips, shows him how maroon would only go with a real baby pink. He hates baby pink. She wants the woodwork painted to match the walls. He argues it would be hard to keep clean.
‘It’s not as if we have little kids running around with grubby fingers,’ she says. His mouth settles into total negation. ‘No way. Absolutely not.’ She suggests at least painting the molding around the top of the walls to match. He’s against that, too. ‘Things should match. All the woodwork should match,’ he says. He looks like a two-year-old who has been told to eat his peas even though they touch his potatoes. ‘I’m not about to get into painting cabinets,’ he adds.
I know better, but I can’t help myself. ‘Mr. Blacklow, you can think of this area, this family room, as separate from the kitchen, and the woodwork can have its own integrity. The cabinets can stay with the wood color, and the doors could too. You could paint the doorframes and not the doors.’
‘No.’ he says.
‘Okay. But this ceiling molding is a really old-fashioned look; it’s like drawing a dark line all around the walls. It makes the room look small and confined.’
She is nodding. He is bugged. I see I’ve made a mistake, taking sides. I backtrack and say we can wait to decide on that, too. He wants a quote, an estimate. I say I don’t do quotes; I charge $30 an hour plus materials, and I like to be paid at the end of every week. He grouses before he agrees.
I don’t know what she does, but when I come in on Monday she says, ‘Harry, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, we can paint the molding and the baseboards. The bad news is, the other woodwork stays the ugly way it is.’
‘There is no bad news,’ George interjects sourly. He isn’t smiling. When he leaves I give her a little thumbs-up. She smiles and nods.
All week it seems like we’re on the same page. When I say, ‘You asked me whether the molding should match the ceiling or the walls,’ she answers, ‘I think the walls.’ Which is exactly what I had decided.
When I say, ‘I could paint the first facing of that molding to match the ceiling and the rest to match the walls,’ she says, ‘It would give it a lot more snap. How good a cutter are you?’
‘I’m good,’ I say, and I am. I can cut one color against another as steady as any straightedge, and I make sure I do an exceptionally good job for her. She understands how hard it is; she compliments me.
She finds out I’m a hiker; she is too. We talk about what mountains we’ve climbed. She’s working on the 4000-footers; she has 44 out of the 48. I’ve done them all, and we talk a lot about what our favorites are. It gets kind of spooky, we have so much in common.
It’s not as if she hangs around chatting while I work; she seems to have a busy life. But there was this one day. She walked through and said, ‘Gee, Harry, does it look like a chili parlor?’
‘I like chili parlors,’ I said.
‘So do I.’
We’re both laughing a little when she walks out and starts down the stairs. It sounds like George is coming up the stairs. They both stop and I hear him whisper, ‘Let’s do it, right here.’ He whispers loud enough I can hear it above my radio. He means for me to hear it, the damned old goat. I can feel my ears get red with anger.
I hear her say, ‘Are you crazy?’ There’s kind of a little tussle before she goes on down and he comes up. He nods and says hi to me as if he didn’t know I had heard. I realize he’s jealous. He’s the old bull claiming his fucking rights.
After he goes away I realize I’m jealous too.
When I finish up and give him the bill, he pays on the spot. That’s the only good thing I can say about him.
She says she is really happy with the job. ‘As good as I would have done,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘Better,’ I say, smiling back.
They never call me again. I think about her pretty often, especially if I’m working for some woman who is a shrew. About how simpatico we were, how easy it was to talk to her. About the quirks of life. About why I should have lived this long and never found myself a woman like that.
A couple of years later I run into her on a Mountain Club walk up Monadnock. It’s a medium-hard hike. Going up I’m near the leaders, but my knees aren’t so great anymore and I’m slower coming down. She overtakes me and we walk along together on the long, flat miles out. Hiking is the poor man’s psychotherapy. When you’re tired and bored, you talk to pass the miles. ‘How’s George?’ I venture.
She takes a quick look at me, as if to see if I have an agenda. Which I do. ‘As ever,’ she says.
We walk along in silence for a few yards. She gives me a lopsided smile. ‘Cranky, that is,’ she says.
I know I shouldn’t say anything else. But I do. ‘How do you stand it?’ I say.
She looks me full in the face for two steps, then turns to concentrate on her footing. ‘Better the devil you know,’ she says.
I spend a few steps letting that settle in my brain. Then I drop back and let her go on ahead, out of my life.