“Would you like to sit here?” a quavering voice asked.
I’d planned to grab a fast breakfast while I waited for the paint store next door to open, but the clog-your-arteries breakfast place was jammed to the gills. A grey-haired lady gestured to the empty seat beside her, inviting me to sit down. I accepted eagerly and joined her and her daughter, a plump woman in her 20s.
And that was how I hired the singing housepainter.
OK, she wasn’t singing when I hired her to paint my house. The previous owners of my home, apparently in tune with Portland’s gloomy winter ambience, had painted all the walls a depressing grey-green that really REALLY needed to go.
Three different painters had promised to paint those walls and vanished. Possibly they had second thoughts about the weirdly angled, 24-foot ceilings and stairwells.
I was getting desperate–I had 40 people coming for a business holiday party the following week–so at last Mom and I decided to paint the place ourselves. I needed paint and tools and dropcloths and such…and to be back by the time Mom arrived, so the little old lady was doing me a favor.
The woman smiled sadly when I thanked her, told me she’d quit her job in Bakersfield and come here to care for her dying mother. Medical bills had swallowed their assets, so my tablemates were job-hunting.
It wasn’t going well. The retail shops weren’t hiring, and the old lady started to cry.
“Mom, look, don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” the daughter soothed, “I’ll go back to painting houses and everything will be OK!”
After six weeks of chasing down apathetic housepainters, here–with her elbow practically in my scrambled eggs–was a housepainter LOOKING for work.
“You paint houses?” I asked cautiously, “Houses with really tall ceilings?”
“Sure,” she said.
She followed me back to my house, looked around and said, “3-4 days, probably. I’m Becky.” We dickered a bit over price, shook hands, and she went off to get her equipment.
Mom–a world-class painter and wallpaperer–showed up about fifteen minutes later and rolled her eyes. “You picked up a painter in a diner? Did you get references?”
“They really need the money,” I said defensively, “And I really need a painter. How bad could it be?”
Becky arrived and set to work under Mom’s skeptical eyes. I went downstairs to the garage to rout maple boards for stair treads.
Couple hours later, Mom stormed down. “When you see the walls, I want you to know that I did NOT paint them!”
Uh-oh. “What’s wrong?”
“That girl,” she said grimly, “is no housepainter. Lily could paint better than that.” (Lily is my then-4-year-old niece)
I went upstairs to check and found lots of paint…on the floor, the ceiling, the stair rails, the closet door. Surprisingly little had actually made it to the walls. “Uhm, Becky…awful lot of paint on the ceiling…?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she assured me, “This is just the first coat.”
(meaningful look from Mom)
“Uhm, well, see, the paint is ochre and the ceiling is white and we’re not painting the ceiling …”
“Oh, but this kind of paint cleans up really easy, you’ll see.”
Mom shook her head. I reminded myself how much *I* hate it when someone tells me how to do *my* job…and took the coward’s way out, i.e., I slunk back downstairs.
After several hours the first coat was on in the living room, staircase and entry; Mom packed up and went home, still shaking her head. Becky carefully cleaned her brushes and rollers and left, too.
Mom’s expert supervision had prevented additional paint mishaps and the job really didn’t look that bad, if you ignored everything but the walls. Well, there was this 6-inch strip of ugly grey-green up near the ceiling where Becky’s roller hadn’t quite reached, but she told me she’d bring the scaffolding in the morning and cover it up.
Next morning: “My uncle doesn’t have his scaffolding anymore,” Becky said, “But it’ll be OK; you have one a them Gorilla ladders, and I can use that.”
She climbed to the top of the ladder, and by stretching on tippytoe with a long brush could just barely reach the unpainted part. She looked like Humpty Dumpty on a broomstraw, though, and the ladder shook and swayed.
I had visions of my housepainter crashing to the floor and breaking every lawyer-happy bone in her body. “Uhm, Becky…I’ll see if I can rent some scaffolding, but for now, would you just… come… down.. please?”
She grumbled, but looked relieved. We agreed to let the tops of the walls go for now, and Becky moved on to my office. “Whoa, the ceilings are tall in here, too,” she said, looking up apprehensively.
“Well,” I replied reassuringly, “Just do as much as you can for now and I’ll go see about the scaffolding.”
I was on the phone with the equipment rental place–do you know how much scaffolding COSTS?–when she called. “Hey, Cynthia! Can you come in here a sec?”
I found her cleaning the last bits of paint from her brushes. “I gotta go,” she said, tucking my roll of blue tape into her bag, “Working on your job has made me pretty sure this isn’t what I want to do with my life, you know?”
She beamed a sunny smile at me. “I need to make my dream happen. In Bakersfield!”
“Right now?” I stared at the half-painted walls as I gently removed the tape from her bag, “But you haven’t finished!”
“Yeah, but I’m really a country-western singer and there’s this bar in Bakersfield holding auditions tomorrow! First prize is an audition at the Grand Ole Opry! So, sorry, I gotta go,” she said, “It’s my big chance. And you know, I’m a really shitty housepainter anyway.”
This part, I knew.
“Anyway, Cynthia, you should get somebody with his own scaffolding. Those ceilings are HIGH. I’ll just need my check.”
She expected full payment but I’m not THAT softheaded–and she left. “I’ll send you my first album, free of charge,” she promised.
I never saw her again.
These days, visitors to my home frequently stare at the greygreen-topped ochre walls in my living room, the softball-sized golden blobs on the ceiling, and the artistically ragged ochre stripes halfway across my office. They’ll innocently inquire as to when the housepainter plans to return to finish the job.
I grin and say, “Right after her album goes platinum.”
Who knows? Maybe some day when the singing housepainter is more famous than Elvis, these walls will be worth a million bucks.