You’d think a painter would have better painted walls. But you don’t. They’re lead-based , chipping and you’re not at all fond of the color. In fact, you’re considering hiring a painter. Hell, you say that like it’s a novel idea. You considered hiring a painter when you moved in with your gunny sack and vintage suitcase packed full with more ego than a foresighted van Gogh. Plus an ear and a mind and minus a suicide. But you never hired one. It’s like how a maid never cleans her own house and a carpenter’s collapses. At least that’s the best you’ve come up with. Or you’ve gotten used to it. Or you sort of like it but wont admit it – that disconcerting and maddening orange.
Truth be told, you’d figured to be artistically successful with a sound mind would be an impossibility. And so you hoped the orange would contribute to your losing of the latter and finding of the former. Then again, this may be more of a convolution than a solution, you’d cleverly thought up. But constantly wracking your brain, waiting for a response from this gallery and that, and every one in the city while pestering the internet with searches on contrived insanity only fosters headaches and a dependence on Tylenol which you write off as the necessary vice of a troubled but genius artist.
But it’s not just orange. It’s headache orange. Over-caution orange. And it talks. It doesn’t just talk – it nags worse than your mother. It says hurry up, Marko! and you say what’s the rush, orange wall? and what am I hurrying, anyway? And it doesn’t answer, no matter how long you wait and how much Tylenol you swallow because it’s a wall. A thin wall. A very thin wall. Thin enough to know – to be sure – that your neighbors have very not-normal sex. The kind of sex that persecutes the missionary. Probably not the kind of sex normal people have, anyway. And you’re pretty sure it’s all they do. For as long as you’ve lived here, you’ve heard them and felt their vigorous bustle no less than an uncountable number of times per day. To your knowledge, and according to the ever-trembling wall you call evidence, they have never actually left their apartment.
And so you have no choice but to imagine your neighbors sideways, upside down, and perpendicular to impossibility. Praising God and breathing heavy animal impressions into their Egyptian cotton pillowcases. Maybe it bothered you at first, but before long, you moved your bed to the adjoining smut wall. From that night on you got off to more and better sex than you’d ever had. But when they’re still going at it and you’re reaching for a dirty t-shirt in the dark, you realize it’s also better sex than you’ll ever have. And for reasons including but not limited to talking to walls and admitting pleasuring yourself to your neighbor’s unruly and unending coitus, this remains to be true.
That was then. That was almost a year ago. Now it’s the middle of the day and your neighbors are really going at it. Now you’ve got a hell of a headache – probably an early symptom of acetaminophen withdrawal – and holy Moses is it hot.
‘Holy Moses is it hot.’ Stenny wipes his face with a white rag and drapes it over his shoulder. He kneels down and levels his eyes over the stretched canvas, examining the surface. ‘Jesus, listen to them go.’ He frowns, biting four metal tacks between his teeth. You adjust your easel to see out the window. ‘I’m a little worried, Marko.’
You hear a thick slap and the tempo increases.
‘Stenny, I’m trying to-‘
‘No really, they’re gonna get heat stroke or something.’
‘Fine by me.’
‘That’s awful. Shouldn’t I call someone?’
‘What?’ You don’t look at Stenny. Looking away from your painting, especially at Stenny, would mean giving up. As always, Stenny is hard at work and steeped in progress – a small pile of finished canvases is growing by his side and soon the little orange room will reek of ammonia. You’ll complain why can’t he Gesso his canvases somewhere else? and he’ll remind you, as always, that he has nowhere else to work and why don’t you go work outside? Monet painted outside. And you’ll say you know Monet painted outside, that you’re not Monet, and besides it’s too hot to paint outside. But he’ll say he can’t work outside either and he’ll pick up his white bottle and open the cap and let the smell out. And you’ll shut up about it because you’re whining and whining, even when you do it, makes your head ache worse and you’re trying, with no success, to cut down on the Tylenol. Besides, he makes a living stretching canvases. And you just ruin them as a hobby.
‘Isn’t there someone I can call? The police or the fire department?’ Stenny mumbles through tacks.
‘You’re asking me who you should call to report our neighbors having sex?’ You’ve managed to stare at and sometimes just beyond your canvas for the past fiftyish minutes. A new record, you think. And the building across the street is turning out right this time. It’s the naked woman you’ve painted in the window. She’s small, hardly noticeable and you have, however intentionally, with the most delicate stroke, given her face the persuasion of a wayward glance. You wonder what she sees. She’s looking at your building, at some adjacent window. You hope your neighbors keep their shades drawn – that your painted lady is not looking, but rather, lost in thought. You have to stop thinking so much. It’s perfect. She’s perfect. You think maybe it’s genius but you shouldn’t think that, so you don’t. You try not to. Genius is all well and good, but if you look away now, that’s it.
‘How do we know they’re properly hydrated?’
‘What? Stenny, it’s not like this is anything new.’
‘This heat is. Do you have any idea how many calories you burn copulating?’
‘Copulating?’ You look at Stenny.
‘I know what it means, why don’t you just say-‘
‘Like a hundred and fifty.’
‘Calories per hour.’
‘Stenny, why the hell do you care so much?’
‘Wait, listen.’ Stenny puts a hand up. The wall is silent. Stenny looks at you. You shrug and try to turn back to your painting but the wall heaves again and a small frame falls from the wall and shatters.
‘It’s too hot for this.’ Stenny points at the orange and it moans back.
‘You’re afraid they’re going to fuck to death?’
‘It’s a hundred degrees outside. And listen to them.’
‘I’m trying not to.’ You look back to your easel but the paint looks like paint now and you forget what it should look like. You dab at her face and it looks twisted now. Not turned. And it all looks too orange. But you didn’t use any because it gives you a headache and you’ve been suspecting awhile that you’re developing an allergy to oranges. You wonder if people will notice how you never use orange and compare it to Picasso’s blue period or something. That sounds stupid the more you think about it. Not the sans-orange period, the allergy to oranges. Come to think of it, you really haven’t given it much thought, the allergy, that is. And you’d like to find out for sure. You want an orange and a Tylenol. You set down your brush and walk to the kitchen. It feels more open, less orange. ‘Do we have any oranges?’ you ask the inside of the refrigerator.
‘How would that help?’
‘For me, Stenny. Will you forget about them?’ You gesture to the wall and it shuts up. Stenny looks up from his work. Silence.
‘You think they’re OK?’
‘Christ.’ You walk into the bathroom and find an empty bottle of Tylenol. ‘Do you have any Tylenol?’
‘You need to lay of that stuff, Marko. You’re going to break your liver.’
‘Break my liver?’
‘You know what I mean.’
You check you pockets for keys and open the door.
‘Seriously though, do you think they’re alright?’
‘No, they’re probably dead. I’m gonna split before there’s a smell.’ You shut the door before Stenny says anything.
You pull the elevator gate shut and switch the light off as it rattles toward the ground floor. Riding the rickety lift always reminds you of cocaine. Not that you ever tried it. Although you think you would if you had the chance. It’s just that you heard a coke-head on a documentary talking about getting addicted and always trying to match that first time he smoked crack. That first high. You don’t want to smoke crack. That’s crazy. Maybe just sniff a little if you had the chance. And you’re not addicted to the elevator. You just always think about it like that – always trying to find the high of that first time.
You remember it, or rather, you can’t forget it – walking toward that crosshatched metal gate like it wasn’t the first time you’d ever see one like it in real life – hiding the burning urge to settle in and paint a remarkable likeness. You strode and rode with a careless Kerouacian sashay, recalling the Google definition of bohemian and wondering how many times your mother, who had scoffed and taken the stairs, could use the word deathtrap in a six-floor ride. The stop button begged itself red for you to press it. You both wanted to see what would happen, but the ride ended and you tried not to look disappointed while you waited for your mother.
But now it’s just cool in the small, dark space and you hate that anecdote you can’t forget. You consider pushing the stop button to see what happens. You don’t. But not because you’re afraid it might not start again. You just don’t. Instead, you close your eyes and try to think about the painting you left. But you think about how you have to work tonight. And how that’s the last thing you need. That it’s not worth the money. And maybe you should just quit. Because any job would be better. And now you can’t even remember what you were painting. All you can remember is Stenny and his canvases, and orange, and having an erection. You step out of the elevator. The temperature must have risen five degrees on your way out.
The store is air conditioned. So that’s a relief. But your sweat from the walk and the cold air makes you shiver. Still a relief. Four is the Tylenol aisle. Other things too. But you just call it the Tylenol aisle. You stop and stand like you’re deliberating. Like you don’t go through a bottle a week. Like you’re really giving it some thought. You try not to give it too much thought. It is a vice, after all. And vices don’t really take thought, they’re just a reflex. An escape. You’ve tried others. Cigarettes taste bad and alcohol is so cliché. You’re either coughing or puking. Going outside too often to get any painting done or too drunk to paint. And they’re both too expensive. And neither comes in extra-strength. But you try not to think about it.
The less often you think about it, the more sense your chosen vice makes. And the more sense having a vice makes. And having chosen one. Some day, you think, they’ll stand, staring at your work. And one privy soul will lean over and ask, did you know, he was addicted to Tylenol? Or maybe pain medication. Pills. Pain pills. Did you know he was addicted to pain pills? I didn’t. Every great artist has his vice. I guess that’s true. Faulkner drank and did you know Picasso smoked weed? Really? Gospel truth. I didn’t think they had weed back then. Oh, sure they did. Well, I guess I’m not surprised. Ha ha. Ha.
You place the box on the counter and roll an orange against it. The cashier is young and attractive. But she’s too young for you to think she’s attractive, so you don’t. You try not to. She smiles and picks up the orange.
‘You’re a mess. Is that paint?’ Jesus , here we go.
You turn your hands over. ‘Um, yeah.’ Please just do your job.
She turns the fruit in her hands. ‘Are you a painter?’
‘Yeah.’ Just tell me what I owe.
Her nails are painted a half shade lighter than the orange. And they’re chipping. It bothers you. ‘What kind?’
‘Uh-‘ At least push a button.
‘Yeah.’ Can you even work the register?
She touches a few buttons on the register and picks up the Tylenol. ‘An artist.’ She laughs.
‘Hardly.’ I remember my first job, too.
‘Well, there’s galleries all over this part of the city. So, I guess you’re in the right place.’
‘I guess I am.’ The orange is a little pricey but I’d pay you anything to shut up.
She scans the pills. ‘Do you have paintings up anywhere? I love art.’
‘What do I owe you?’
She scoffs and rolls her eyes. ‘Fifteen twenty-two.’
You pay, pocket your Tylenol and peel your orange on the walk back, sweating, because somehow it’s hotter. The sun makes your head throb and you wished you’d bought a drink. Dry swallowing pills can give you an ulcer. Whatever that is. You read it. Or heard it. Either way it doesn’t sound pleasant. You fail to peel the orange in a single go, so you break off fragrant bits, leaving a trail for a block and a half to bake in orange heat.
When you reach the elevator you smell a short, round man with a paper bag under his arm. You nod. He nods back, breathing loudly through his nose. You peel off a wedge of fruit and bite it in half. You let him step in first, half hoping there isn’t any space left. The elevator sinks under his weight. You finish the wedge of orange, squeeze in next to him and pull the gate shut. Try as you might, you can’t help your shoulders’ touching. His arm is hot and damp and you skin clings to his.
‘Which floor?’ he asks, fingering the buttons with his clammy digits.
You swallow. ‘Six.’
‘Oh, same.’ His chin doubles as he speaks.
‘Oh.’ You peel off a wedge and eat it whole. A seed catches your teeth off guard. You crunch it once and swallow.
You ride in humid silence. You breathe his air and pretend it’s alright. But he wheezes in and out and he’s sweat through his grey t-shirt. For lack of space, you can feel his every heavy move. His tacky arm rubs against your skin and his thick elbow presses at your rubs as he changes his grip on the bag. You eat a wedge of orange and try to look past him at the elevator’s weight limit. Fruitless. You’ll have to leave it to chance. You think you can feel the elevator rise at an angle but his girth hides the inspection paper too. His arm envelops the brown paper bag. It’s saturated with oil spots. But from the inside or out, you can’t tell. Smells like Chinese. You pop another piece of orange into you mouth. He’s breathing, sucking air through a throat of ever-rattling phlegm. Beads of sweat leak from his forehead and he wipes them away with the back of his hand. You eat some more orange and grimace at the dark stain under his armpit. All you can feel is the stringy membrane wall surrounding the juice. Between your teeth. And his arm against yours. And it’s all warm, hot, from you and from him and from the air and the thick steam rising between the staples in the top of the paper bag.
‘S’hot,’ he pants, clears his throat, and laughs.
‘Yeah.’ You’re chewing, looking down at his hand. A drop of sweat collects on his thick fingertip. You watch, waiting for it to fall from his middle finger.
‘This thing takes forever, huh?’ he wheezes.
You eat more orange. Looking down, staring at his glistening hand. ‘Mm.’ It tastes like sweat and egg rolls and tortures your tonsils.
Finally, the elevator shakes to a halt and the bead of sweat drops from his finger, darkening the carpet. You open the gate and step out. The man trails you down the hall. You push your key into the lock and wait, fiddling. You swear a little under your breath for effect and watch the man shuffle down the hall. He stops at your neighbor’s door. They must have ordered out. But the way that delivery guy handles the food. You decide to never eat Chinese again. He snorts and pats his pockets with a free hand. Of course they ordered out, they never leave their sex lair. And they’d need the carbs to keep their pace. But then again, the MSG. Maybe they’ll prove Stenny right. What a way to go. You wonder what kind of shape someone’s got to be in. They must be marathon runners. He looks up at you and laughs, breathing heavy like he might collapse. ‘Forgot my keys,’ he says, knocking. He waits, smiling and knocks again. ‘Debby,’ he yells at the door. He shifts his hold on the dark, stained bag. You hear the floor creak from inside. You fiddle with the lock a little more. The door opens and the man smiles. ‘Hey, baby, sorry you had to get out of bed.’ She peeks out the door. ‘But we finally meet out neighbor.’ She wags a thick hand at you. Dark hair, darker with grease, sticks to her chin and neck – two features which seem to be in a gridlocked battle for real estate on her face . She is sweating too, and breathes like him. She wears a long, baggy shirt that somehow masks her shape. Shapes. Her pale legs pour in rolling, ham-like cascades from the stretched bottom of the sweat-yellowed moo moo. She smiles and turns back to the man. They kiss and squeeze through the doorway. You turn the key and shut the door behind you, dropping the rest of your orange into the trash as you walk into the kitchen and pour a glass of water.
‘Marko, they’re alright.’ Stenny is still hard at work. His finished canvases are drying all around the room and fans circulate the air.
‘What?’ You pour some pills onto the counter, count four and replace the rest. You pick one up, place it on your tongue, drink and swallow.
‘I heard them moving around over there. And not in a sex way. It was quiet for the longest time. And I didn’t know what do to but I just heard them moving around. So they’re OK.’ You take another pill. ‘Why don’t you take them all at once.’
‘You shouldn’t have that many, anyway.’
You swallow another. ‘Noted.’ You pick up the last pill and swallow it on the way to your room.
‘Hey, are you alright?’
You stop and lean in the door frame to your room. ‘Yeah, I’m just hot. And I’m tired. I’m working tonight so I should get some sleep.’
‘You just seem depressed.’
You scoff and turn to Stenny.
‘I mean more than usual.’
You sigh and shake your head. ‘It’s fine.’
‘Have any of the galleries gotten back to you yet?’
You wave your hand and turn to leave.
‘You know, there are perks to having me as a room mate.’
You rub your eyes with the heels of your hands and turn back to Stenny. ‘Like?’
‘Like, I could talk to someone for you. I know how hard it can be.’
‘Hey, sometimes it just takes one gallery to say yes and the rest follow. I’ve seen it a hundred times.’
‘I shouldn’t need help. I don’t. And I don’t want charity.’
‘It’s not charity. It’s the way of things. It’s all who you know, Marko.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s bullshit.’
‘Well, it isn’t fair.’
‘Fair? Listen to yourself.’
‘I just don’t want it handed to me. I want to earn it.’
‘Marko, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to play the game.’
‘No, I just need to work harder. Not that it seems to matter.’
‘Working hard isn’t even half of it. I mean, look how far it’s gotten you.’ You look around at all the canvases littering the apartment – yours, stained, unfinished and set, two deep, against every stable surface, weighted down by a layer of dust – and Stenny’s, pure white and freshly stretched, leaning against yours. They look countless. But you know exactly how many there are. ‘You can hardly finish a piece.’
‘It’s these walls, they kill me. This orange.’
‘The walls? Jesus, do you hear how pathetic you sound?’
You look at all the walls and all the canvases, his, yours, painted and not and everywhere but Stenny. You shrug and sigh. ‘Yes.’
‘So, let me do you a favor. I have a number I can call today. Right now.’ He gets up and takes the phone off the wall.
‘Don’t bother. It doesn’t matter. I just don’t cut it.’ You turn away and shut yourself in.
‘I’m going to make the call,’ he yells through the door.
You draw your shade. In the dark you strip down and lay uncovered on your sheets. Your head pounds and you can feel yourself sweating. There is silence. There is silence, save for the humming fans and Stenny’s occasional staple gun and muted voice. But by now, that’s like silence to you. There is silence, but you imagine sweat fried egg foo chicken chop jowls, molared to a grey-brown paste. And it’s either that or the Tylenol making you sick. It’s either that or the Tylenol or the heat or the overwhelming sense of urgent orange, toxic and unfinished . Pointless. An unending reminder of utter failure – the hapless, helpless, hopeless and unthinkably probable reality that mom’s basement is probably cooler than this – that screams give up and you were wrong, so wrong, and it makes you feel so much shame for countless smug smiles and years of pig-headed confidence in the talent that you obviously don’t have. You think of killing yourself. But what point is there in leaving behind a dusty legacy of half-done, mediocre paint-jobs? But maybe you are allergic to oranges and maybe you should have one of those needle medicine pens. And now, somehow, you’re reaching for a dirty t-shit. Because they’re at it again and old habits die hard.
You wake up just past midnight. The subway closes in an hour and you have to work at half past then. You walk to work. Twenty minutes isn’t so far. You walk and think, tonight more than usual, just how hilariously unhilarious your job is. Markus? your boss said. Marko, you corrected. He asked what kind of name is that? and you said you didn’t know, and he said it didn’t matter anyway and what kind of experience have you got? I’m an artist, I paint. Painting is perfect, you’ll be doing a lot of that, he said.
Public Maintenance Monitor: must work nights, independent, works well alone. It sounded perfect. And in less than a week you spent six nights out of seven sweeping cigarette butts, shooing bums and whitewashing graffiti. This was the only hook. You felt it a sacrilege. You destroyed art for a living. And some of it, really beautiful stuff. Better by far than yours. And oh, how you toiled over it. Off the job, you dabbled in the angriest colors you could find. You stopped eating as retribution. Slept on the floor. Took up smoking again, tipped your glass to the cheapest vodka and started popping Tylenol to fight the hangovers that became your usual state. Anything you could think up. And all the while you reveled in the glorious turmoil, in the irony, the dazzling hypocrisy. You thought, what better way? what more turbulent path to success? what more beautifully inconsistent contradiction? You quoted Emerson as you worked. Wrote, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, in white, and then washed your secret over, grinning, smug and brilliant. So clever. Such wit. And you reveled in the irony.
It’s a blessing, you think now, that you’re not so likable. You might have had the chance to tell someone about all that. And even still, the walls and paint know. It’s enough to shame. You used to work until dawn, perfecting your careless-looking strokes of bleached nonchalance. Now you hurry. Now you slop a good enough coat and move on. Now you try not to think. Try not to look at what you’re doing.
But now you are looking up at unfinished beauty. You can’t help but stare at her six foot face. Only lines. But she is real. And turned gently, looking with effortless intent at something you would give anything to see. Behind her, a mangled collage of tags, words, initials and wildly twisting colors blend to a slapdash sunset. You notice a glint and drip. The paint is still wet. So you stand watching it dry. You stand and watch until your hand aches from the thin wire handle of your paint bucket. The heavy white pulls down on your finger joints. It hurts and you pull the brush from the white. The brush is clumsy, heavy with paint and dripping down your leg. It spits across her face and drips down through the colors into a puddle of roiled spectrum at your feet. Your fingers burn under the handle and you dip the brush again.
You look up at her scarred face. There is a scuff and a breath behind you. You turn, but she rushes you. Your head connects with her concrete chin and you crumple to the ground. You plant your hands to stand but something topples you over. From your back you can see someone. They wear a hood and stand over you. I’m just doing my job, you say, you plead, pointing to the overturned pale of fleeing paint. You call this work? they ask, that’s art, they say, pointing to her. And you apologize, and say you know, and stand, facing the artist. They shove you against the wall and you think how you’ve never been punched before. At least not in the face. And you guess this wouldn’t be a completely inappropriate time.
You fall after one punch. And with your eyes closed you hear the clapper of a spray-paint can. And with your eyes opened, paint rushes into your eyes and mouth and nose. Then the hissing gives way to cursing. The cursing to footsteps. The footsteps to silence. And you stumble to the utility closet to flush your eyes and swallow some Tylenol.
At home you swallow four more Tylenol. You touch yourself to the freak show next door, throw a shoe at the wall and fall asleep.
It’s light. And probably late. You lay in silence. You are asleep.
But he knows you’re not asleep. And you wish you knew how.
‘You gonna get up?’
Now you can go back to sleep. But you wonder why he asked. He knows you worked last night. ‘Why?’
‘Why did you ask if I was gonna get up?’
‘Oh, you had a phone call.’
You open your eyes. ‘Who?’
‘I don’t know. There’s a message, I think.’
You get up and walk out in your underwear.
‘You look like shit. Is that paint on your face?’
‘Yeah.’ You watch the answering machine blink. It’s probably your boss bitching that you left a mess last night. Saying you’re fired. Or your mom. You hope it’s your boss. You push play.
Hello, this is Joseph Pruden calling for Markus Lammie. I’m over here at the Flatland Gallery on Sixth. And I’m following up a submission-
You look over at Stenny. His eyes are leveled over the next canvas in the pile. And with four metal tacks in his mouth, it is impossible to hear him say you’re welcome. Impossible to hear the thunderous throes of next door love. It is impossible to hear anything over the pounding of your genius vessels in your genius temples. And you don’t, can’t think to thank Stenny for the phone call you don’t know he made. And you don’t know that he used words like favor and please and even begged a little to get you this. Because there’s no way. You did this. It is impossible to hear anything over the overwhelming sense of urgent orange, intoxicating and realized. Fulfilling. An unending swell of long deserved comeuppance – the hapful, helpful, hopeful and unbelievably palpable reality that probably nothing is cooler than this – that boasts loud, they were wrong and you were right, so right in your unwavering confidence and you’ll never feel the same.
Matthew R. Laurion is an ex-paperboy turned story-teller. He’s always liked to throw words around and thinks it wouldn’t be so bad get paid for it again someday.
Apart from writing, Matthew also produces a literary podcast for musicians, poets and prose writers to tout their talent. Listen and submit at www.WordOfTheDayRadio.org
Interested (for whatever the hell reason) parties can reach Matthew at: firstname.lastname@example.org
He thanks you most humbly for reading his rambling rants.
–Art by Marta Bevacqua
–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden
–Art by Seamus Travers