The Bill (Part Four)
Friday, April 19, 2002
Isabella, my favorite decorator, wants me to install lights for a new client. "White carpets, no kids," she says. This is code. A warning. Children are the great leveler. Clients without kids sometimes suffer the delusion that perfection is possible. They have the free time to obsess over it and the money to try to buy it. Clients with white carpets, same delusion. Combined, it's double trouble.
To install the downlights I have to move a sofa out of the way, place a drop cloth, set a ladder. Running wires, I cut a hole in the ceiling, then patch it.
She's a whiner. While I work she complains about the crows in her mimosa tree, the declining quality of Coca Cola, the daffodils that refuse to bloom. The house is immaculate. She's a former stewardess for United Airlines, successful in her marriage quest, now dwelling in a wealthy enclave with no job, no children, a life of shopping and lunches and serving one high-flying man.
By this stage of my career, I'm a pro. If you aren't careful, a retrofit downlight will be wobbly, not quite flush with the ceiling, expose chipped edging around the hole, get a scratch on the trim, or it can overheat if you don't clear the insulation. Here, I do a damn good job.
I carry the ladder back to my truck, pick up the drop cloth, and am about to move the sofa when she says, "There's a stain. On the carpet."
Yes, there is. A pale brown stain in a white carpet.
"That stain is all dried out," I say. "It's brown. I was using white plaster, and anyway the carpet was covered by a drop cloth."
"Then how'd it get there?"
"It was hidden by the sofa. It's been there a long time."
I write up a bill. The stain, I'm thinking, is the color of old Coca Cola.
"I'll mail you a check," she says.
"I have a policy." Actually, I don't. "I have to get a payment before I leave."
She squints at me. I don't move. It's a silent argument. There's body language in my stance, nonthreatening but nonyielding. What I'm counting on is her desire for order, to be alone once again in her almost perfect, slightly stained little world. When she was six miles above the earth stewarding the aisles in search of marriage material, a tradesman was not what she was seeking and she does not want another minute of my presence in her domain.
Let's for a moment acknowledge what I do, entering women's houses, working among their private places. Call it metaphor or call it Freudian, it's the same thing. At least on a subconscious level, most women are aware of it.
She writes a check. And I'm gone.