The Painter, Vandalism, and Debts to the Universe

by Boudreau Freret

“I need…”

He looked away, perhaps to swallow his pride. Whatever the cause of his trepidation, if that was really what it was, hesitation was unnecessary — Mark could have finished the sentence for him.

Mark could tell from the man's eyes, from his body language. He didn't know this man well (by name only) and they certainly weren't friends, but this was a conversation Mark had been a party to a thousand times before with a thousand other people, and they always went more or less the same.

“I need,” he repeated, “help.” Flood gates opened, the man blurted out, “And I don't have any money.”

The man looked down at his hands. Reflexively, Mark did as well. They were trembling. There was paint on and under the nails and stuck in the hair of his wrists where it wouldn't scrub out. Three different shades of paint. Two seemed fresh. There was less of the third, a darker shade, mostly covered by one or both of the first two.

Mark wondered if the man's hands shook from nerves or meds or whether it was symptomatic of something else.

Mark looked back up and gave the painter his nonthreatening but authoritative, “Tell me what's going on.”

The painter did.

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 There were three general categories of people who asked Mark for help.

The first wanted something Mark couldn't give them and no one else could either.

The second wanted something that he couldn't give them but he could point them in the right direction if not outright tell them where to go to get what they wanted. Mark was continually amazed at how many of these people didn't recognize that knowing where to go for a solution is a service of value. He often wondered how frustrated, how unappreciated, librarians must feel. But then, most librarians probably don't bill by the hour. “Maybe they should,” he thought.

The third wanted something that Mark could do for them. Whether or not Mark did was partially up to them and partially up to him.

The painter's problem fit into category three, and once he'd finished giving some of the necessary details (and many more that were not), Mark asked some questions and told the man what he could do to help.

And Mark said he would.

The painter wept, a little. “I can't thank you enough,” he said. “I'll paint your house. For free. Buy the paint, and I'll paint it for free. Thank you. God, thank you so much.”

“You're welcome, and thanks for offering, but I'm just doing this because,” Mark said. “If I ever need my house painted, we'll talk about that then.”

There are rules about choosing to help someone for free. Mark didn't need his house painted. So there was no question about where they were in relation to one another in this transaction: Mark was going to do something for the painter that Mark did for a living, for free, because the painter needed it and because it would probably work. No strings.

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Over the next few weeks, Mark worked on the painter's problem off and on in the regular course of Mark's business.

And fixed it. Mark solved the painter's problem.

The painter was happy, but showed none of the elation that might reasonably have been expected from the desperate man Mark had first comforted. Mark had learned that sometimes people value services only to the extent that they pay for them, and though he didn't understand why, time and time again, the least appreciative people he'd helped over the years had paid the least for the help they received. The painter wasn't unappreciative, really, but by the time Mark triumphantly announced that the painter's problem had been resolved, the painter seemed more preoccupied with whatever that day's drama happened to be more than anything else.

Mark didn't care. How he chose to spend his time was never about what the other person thought or did, and was always about whether it seemed like he was the right person in the right place at the right time to help another human being. He thought he could help the painter, the painter needed it, and Mark was correct. So far as Mark was concerned, he'd paid down another small part of his debt to the universe and was independently happy about the success.

It seemed like the right thing to do, and Mark was pleased.

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Over the next couple of years, Mark ran into the painter more frequently than you might imagine, and the painter would always ask, “Hey, when are we going to paint your house?”

Mark didn't need his house painted. So he always politely said he didn't know.

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Four months and two years later, thanks to a broken pipe that flooded a few hundred gallons of water into every room, Mark's house did need to be painted. He did not immediately think, “Hey, I'll call the painter,” but he didn't have to, because while lining up contractors, Mark ran into the painter again.

“Hey, when are we going to paint your house?” the painter asked.

“As soon as I move everything that survived the water damage into storage.”

“Seriously?” the painter's eyes widened. “I'll start this week. I'll paint your house for a thousand dollars, if you buy the paint.”

“Come see it first. Then give me a quote.”

Mark knew a thousand dollars was unreasonably low for a job that would take from ten days to two weeks, and since the help he'd given the painter had always been a gift, Mark never expected the painter to work for free or even for an unreasonably low amount. “And I still have to move everything out that isn't trash, so the tile guys can redo the floors.”

“No, man, I can start now! Right away! I'll move stuff to the center of each room and cover it with drop cloths, I paint furnished houses all the time! I'll work around tile guys, I'll stay ahead of them.”

“Come take a look, first.”

So the painter did.

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 The painter stood in Mark's dining room.

“Okay,” he said, looking serious if not concerned. “Okay. Man.”

Mark waited, quietly, for the news. The painter had gone through the whole house, closets and all. It wasn't lost on Mark that, for whatever reason, the painter's hands were trembling now, too. Had they ever stopped? Did they always shake like that?

“I'll paint your house for two thousand dollars,” he paused. “If you buy the paint and supplies.”

Two thousand was pretty close to market value for the job, but was still a discounted rate. Mark was beginning to suspect that the painter was desperate for the work. At two thousand dollars, Mark wouldn't be stealing from the painter, and if the discount made the painter feel generous, then both could get what they needed.

Mark called some people the painter had worked with before. The reviews were consistent.

“He's a mess.”

“Yeah, I kinda got that,” Mark said. “But can he paint?”

“Oh, he's a great painter,” everyone said.

A day or so later, the painter left Mark voicemail.

“Yeah, uh, I've been thinking about your job and, uh, there's a lot of chair rail… and all that picture frame molding that I didn't know about… I think $2,500.00 would be fair. That's still a really good deal. I've got my stuff ready to bring over, just let me know when I can get started….”

Mark could have any painting contractor within a hundred and fifty miles paint his house for $2,500.00 plus the cost of paint and supplies. (And if the only painter on Earth wanted three thousand, Mark would have painted it himself.) But for a lot of reasons, none of them particularly good, Mark thought he'd gone too far down this path to start over now: it was paint, for crying out loud, something Mark had done himself enough, though years ago, to do well, and something even his elementary age children could do adequately after an hour of instruction. Something they could do professionally after an hour of instruction followed by an hour of experience.

Mark clung to the notion that the painter was the right person in the right place at the right time to help Mark, (and, if the painter needed the work as much as it seemed, for Mark to help him again, too), and really thought — even with all the warning signs — the painter would do a good job. If the painter did not, no great loss: Mark would just quit paying him and do it himself.

It seemed like the right thing to do, and Mark was pleased.

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Mark gave the painter access to the house a week before it was empty of furnishings, a week before it was unoccupied. The painter came in and hardware and fixtures began to come down in the smallest bedroom. Masking tape started to go up. The painter did about seven hours' worth of labor but he managed to spread those out over seven days. At the end of that first week, some furniture had been moved to the center of two other rooms, and there were lots of drop cloths present (though, eighteen months later, as Mark continued to remove overspray and splatter from every single piece of furniture he owned that survived the water damage, every new tile on the floor, every window, everything that Mark hadn't personally boxed and stored in an entirely separate physical location, Mark wondered what paint-permeable material those drop cloths must have been made from).

The painter's pace — about an hour of work over an entire eight hour day — held steady over the next five weeks that the house was unoccupied while the actual skilled labor took place. Some days Mark would stop by to check in on everybody, and, appreciating that it was a work in progress, wouldn't say anything to the painter while facing at an obvious deficiency that needed to be corrected. The painter would catch Mark staring, and rush to explain, “I'm not finished yet, I'll get that. I'm not done.”

The painter maintained his pace consistently even after week five ended and Mark moved back in and started unpacking. In the days that followed, the painter got closer to applying some paint to every surface that needed it. In most cases, the right color, even. Not always, but mostly.

Just closer. Nothing was finished. Not one room.

Every day, Mark told himself that he just needed to get one more good day out of the painter. Every day, Mark ignored that one good day from the painter took about eight calendar days.

“Today's the day,” Mark would tell himself as he left for work. “There aren't four hours of work left. He'll be finished today.”

The painter wasn't finished that day. Or the next. Weeks after Mark moved back in, the painter still hadn't finished.

And some things got worse.

Touch up coats went up in entirely different colors. New fixtures that had recently been installed were broken. Gallons of mineral spirits were spilled on new tile and fresh grout.

Six weeks after moving back in, rather than looking at what the painter had left to finish, Mark began to critically evaluate the parts of the home that he'd previously considered completed.

From ten feet away, one wall had color that, for the most part, looked as it should. At three feet away, Mark began to notice texture that shouldn't have been there. At one foot, it appeared as if the wall had been rolled with a combination of paint and some inconsistent gritty substance. Cat litter, perhaps.

Baseboards and trim had clumps of hair in them. Not the occasional errant brush hair, but fur. As if small woodland creatures were stuck in the paint. Mark hoped they hadn't been trapped there alive.

Mark couldn't fathom how any person (not just a professional painter, but any reasonably sighted, sentient human — his seven year old, included) could rationalize that these acts of vandalism were somehow acceptable.

Mark went room to room, actually looking at the walls and trim of his home. He looked around at the pieces of blue tape stuck everywhere, indicating follow up work was needed in those locations. “I'm not done,” he could hear the painter's voice in my head. “I'll get to that.”

Then Mark threw up in his mind.

“No, you won't.”

Mark put all the painter's tools outside the front door, retrieved the hidden house key, and sent a text:

“Tomorrow morning, come get your tools from outside my front door. Do not attempt to enter my house. After tomorrow morning, do not ever return.”

It seemed like the right thing to do, and Mark was pleased.