Cliff was an alcoholic, a quiet man who saw the world through a glass of gin. He met Margaret on the job.
“I need to brighten up the place,” Margaret told him.
Cliff observed the buckets full of lemon chiffon paint placed in the corner of the living room. He was used to this kind of client. He wanted to tell her that using a lively color in an attempt to bring some bliss into her life would fail, that happiness was not something that could be forced. He knew that next week she would miss her neutral walls; the color yellow would only fill the void for a few days. He wanted to tell her, but he didn’t.
Getting right to work, Cliff opened a bucket of primer. He wanted to get back home as soon as time permitted. He only had about five drinks that morning; they were beginning to wear off. Setting up his ladder, Cliff tried to ignore the ruckus coming from the kitchen.
“Want anything to drink?” Margaret called out.
Cliff knew exactly what he wanted, but he would not ask. He could not afford to lose another job, which is why he made sure to always keep a bottle in his car. It was easily accessible, especially when he may have forgotten supplies in his trunk.
“Water would be great,” Cliff replied.
Margaret found what she had been looking for. She poured him a glass of Merlot. Water would be great, but wine would be better. She admired his enigmatic ways. She wanted to figure him out. That is what she told herself at least; sometimes loneliness skews what we look for in one another.
Margaret only opened the liquor cabinet on special occasions; having company was enough for her. Every now and then she would forget who Cliff actually was, just a man she paid to paint her living room. She liked to pretend that it was much more than that. She hadn’t had a male presence in her home for over a year.
Cliff did not question the absence of water in the glass set down on the table. He took sips of his drink while Margaret searched for small talk. Conversation was not intriguing, for Cliff at least. Awkward silence continued to make its way back around each time, like the hand of a clock. Moments like these smacked Margaret awake but only for so long.
“Do you like being a painter?” she asked.
Attempting to feed off Cliff’s diminutive response, Margaret told him all about her profession as an elementary school teacher. She liked to babble. Before she knew it, she and Cliff had switched roles. She was suddenly the painter, painting Cliff a canvas that he did not care to see, a portrait of her life.
Margaret continued to speak. Cliff poured himself more Merlot. He had nothing to say. She told him why she loved her job so much. She could be around children, feel as if they were her own. Cliff shuddered at the idea. Margaret went on to explain.
“A few years ago, I gave up on treating my infertility. Nothing was working.”
Cliff nodded, looking down at her finger. No ring. Margaret’s husband had left her just a few years ago. She brought up the idea of adoption one night over dinner. There was no more use in trying, being let down. He believed they still had a chance in starting a family. Margaret told him this was the only way. He did not respond with words, just an unfinished meal. His bags were packed six months later. He wanted a child of his own.
After a few hours of Margaret’s prattle and Cliff’s four additional glasses of Merlot, Cliff decided it was time to get back to work. Margaret agreed and held herself back from saying more. She felt puerile for opening up to a man she barely knew. Cliff seemed to live such a simple, upright life.
Cliff painted the living room lemon chiffon. When he returned home, he expected to hear from Margaret in the coming weeks. She did not call.