The bristles of his brush ground hard into the nooks, flicking up suds stained with a subtle rouge, but now Norbert needed a break. He had been scrubbing the same spot in the rug with little relenting. Norbert balanced the brush against the lip of the bucket, stood and stretched his arms over his head.
It was a grand room. A deeply stained parquet floor had a chance to peek through where there weren’t expensive European rugs strewn about. Norbert only admired the beer steins and antique piggy banks decorating the fire place mantle for a few brief seconds before his eyes were pulled upward to a portrait of a resplendent woman.
“That’s my Katherine.”
Norbert spun on his heels to find Mister Williams, his barrel chest cloaked in a silk smoking jacket, framing the wide doorway into the parlor. Four thick slabs of fingers casually gripped a rock glass of scotch, which he subconsciously swirled with slight wrist flicks while his pinkie hovered incongruously. In between inappropriate slurps, Mister Williams slurred, “She was the love of my life.”
Norbert wiped his sweaty palms against his sullied coveralls. “I’m sorry, Mister Williams. I didn’t mean to snoop. I just needed to stand up for a moment; there’s one area of the rug over there that’s tougher than a nun’s habit to remove.”
“Beautiful, ain’t she?” Mister Williams continued, as if Norbert hadn’t spoke. He belched without apology.
“Why, yes sir,” Norbert admitted. “She’s stunning.” He looked away, not wanting his admiration of the woman in the portrait to appear salacious.
“She could make Hell feel like home,” Williams whispered, having moved in close enough to stroke Katherine’s oil-painted complexion with his scotch-free pinkie. He was standing close enough now that Norbert gleaned he hadn’t bathed in quite some time. Stale cigar smoke, urine, sweat and a mausoleum-quality musk clung to Williams like a protective wrapping. When Norbert said nothing, Williams asked, “Have you ever really danced on the edge, carpet cleaner?”
Norbert, growing overwrought, shook his head stupidly. “No, but I once had unprotected sex with four and a half Thai prostitutes.”
“Four…and a half?” Williams repeated questioningly, making eye contact with Norbert for the first time. Norbert looked away quickly, embarrassed by the vacancy and loneliness he saw in the gaze.
“Y-yes, sir. You see, there were these Siamese twins, and I, I only did it with the half that had the vagina.”
Williams wasn’t listening. He had set down his crystal rock glass on a chess table and had moved to the other side of the room where he stared catatonically at the wedding ring imprisoned flush against a rheumatic knuckle. “That’s what it felt like to love her: like dancing on the edge. Knowing that at any minute you could fall and nothing would ever be the same again, but the thrill you get? The thrill that tickles the base of your spine and makes your innards feel like they’re on a roller coaster with naked women to Babylon?” Williams put a cork in his monologue long enough to pinch a cat hair from his lapel and take a drowning gulp of scotch. “That thrill is what keeps you from stopping even when it gets dangerous. Love. She was the love of my life,” he repeated robotically.
“What happened, why aren’t you together anymore?” Norbert asked apprehensively.
Williams shot his head back and laughed uproariously. The scotch on the chess table quivered, and somewhere, something dropped from a wall.
Wiping a viscous sluice of drool from his cleft chin, Williams’ face turned stony as he spat, “Because that’s her you’re scrubbing from my Persian, carpet cleaner.”