Sometimes the name they give you is all wrong.
It’s really just meant to be a simple, two-word phrase to let people talk about a particular shade. “Honey, do you prefer Autumn Sand or Copper Slate?” or “Can I get two gallons of Alpine Storm?” “Is Harbor Mist available in semi-gloss?” We all have numbers, but you can’t use those in conversation. “I’m going to do the walls in 0973-016, the trim in 0975-732, and the wainscoting in 0984-283.” No, names are better. The marketing people figured that out long ago, and they were right. But they don’t always get it right with each one of us.
“Carrion Clay.” That’s my name.
We’re not even named by a person. Nobody looks at 3948-032 and says, “Hmm… this will be Desert Almond.” 0783-971. “And this, I’ll say is… Tropical Shadow.” It’s all done by computer. A word from Column A and a word from Column B. Gradations of orange are Tangerine Sunset, Florida Citrus, Honey Sherbet, and so on. Reds are Crimson Veil, Summer Valentine, Cherry Carnation, etc. Everyone seems happy with it. Everyone but me. Carrion freakin’ Clay.
I’d rather be just 0920-734, but I can’t choose how people perceive me. They pick up my swatch and make jokes. “World’s worst boxer!” “Name something you find at a preschool for vultures.” “Ooh, let’s do the door with this and the frame in Zombie Golem.” I’ve heard them all.
I am a microscopic shade off Sierra Amber and Twilight Sandstone, yet no one will ever let me near their baby’s room. No lowly office drone will hand-sponge me in their bathroom to create a faux marble effect, the one stroke of creativity that keeps their soul alive. I will never be the ambient hue a family subconsciously associates with the concept: home. Brushed Chestnut may. Even Mocha Gravel stands a chance. Not me.
Once… once, a woman browsing through a sample binder stopped on my page. She traced the edge of my eggshell latex finish with her fingertip and lingered on me. Her eyes took on the unfocused drift of one lost in imagination, and I knew she was picturing me in her hallway or bedroom. And, in that moment—that beautiful, accurséd moment—I dared to hope.
I dared to wish for that instant of consummation when she would step back, roller still in hand, and survey with satisfaction my final coating, a smudge of me just below the bandana on her forehead. And I would have served her for years (10 True-Guaranteed™), witness to her private joys and sufferings, until we both began to gray, old friends bound together deeper than any promise by countless hours in one another’s company.
This, and immeasurably more, I would have given her, had she but chosen me instead of Arizona Dusk.
Now, I simply wait. The third quarter sales figures will have reached corporate headquarters by now, and I am surely earmarked for discontinuation. I welcome it. Honestly, I do. Not everything that exists is promised a meaningful existence. I will pass away, literally, not having left a single mark upon this world.
If there is anything more, if there is anything beyond the misbegotten life I have known, let me be wiped clean and arrive fresh in that new place, my name forgotten, my number filed and lost, where I hope only to have the chance to shine.
Matthew McHugh’s short fiction has appeared in The First Line, Asymmetry, and New Reader Magazine. His sci-fi novelette Radioland was named among the Indie Stars of 2015 by Publisher’s Weekly, and his story “Burners” is the 2019 Grand Prize winner of the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award.
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