Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Trust is a Club in the Hand of Someone Who Might Love You by Jeff Lowell
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ABOUT

Strangers in an apartment building are not who they seem to be in this thoughtful story from screenwriter Jeff Lowell.

Trust is a Club in the Hand of Someone
Who Might Love You

My boyfriend Jake and I took care of a shitty apartment building, twenty-four units. Even though they're apartments, for ten bucks extra I'd go in once a week and clean. These people squeezed every cent out of it—some of them didn't clean all week long, not even the dishes. Even the good ones let it slide for a few days. Except for the faggot in fourteen.

I didn't think he really was a, you know, a gay, but that's what Jake called him. He was just a pudgy old guy who talked with big words and lived alone. That's enough for Jake. Anyway, Ronald (that's his name) used to really scrub the place down before I went in, so much you could smell the Pine-Sol. He'd take out the trash, fold his own laundry, everything.

So, I'd just move stuff around and talk to him. I'd ask him about his paintings, because that's all he seemed to care about. His place was crammed full, so much they were stacked on top of each other. You couldn't see half of them. But they were all of the same thing. They were all totally naked women. Different women, but all naked. They were all sitting or standing, not doing anything else. Just hanging out, waiting for someone to paint them. I don't know if they were any good; I don't really know anything about art.

"You should let me paint you." I'd been going for a few months when he asked me that.

"Yeah, I don't think so. You don't want to paint me."

"Sure I do. You're a beautiful woman."

I've been called a lot of things, but I haven't been called beautiful ever, I don't think. Maybe by someone who was trying to get me in bed. So I just shook my head and dusted the spotless coffee table.

"I'd pay, of course. I always pay my models."

"Yeah, I'm no model. Well, I think I'm done."

"I hope I didn't make you uncomfortable."

"No. I just don't want to waste your time."

He went to the top drawer of his dresser and pulled out the bankbook that he kept his money tucked in. He had a good thick stack of twenties in it, and he peeled two off and gave them to me.

"Good thing I made it to the bank today."

"Ronald, I can't—"

"I insist."

"It's only ten dollars, and you keep the place so clean I don't really do anything."

"Money doesn't mean anything to me."

I laughed. I didn't want to be mean, but money means something to everyone who lived in those cheap boxes.

He pressed the bills on me. "I promise you, I've got plenty of money."

"Yeah, okay."

"So why am I here, is that what you're thinking?"

"I wouldn't be."

"If I tell you something, do you swear to never tell another soul?"

Did anyone ever say no to that? I nodded.

"Do you know anything about art?"

"Nah."

"Well, if you did, you probably would have heard of me. I'm a pretty well known artist. I'm a rich man. I could buy this building and ten like it and never notice the money was gone."

I tried to just keep still, but he must have been able to see something on my face. I couldn't figure his angle yet, but you don't want to be alone in an apartment with a guy who's pulling something. I started gathering up my things. Not fast, like I was scared, but I just wanted to be ready to go.

"You think I'm a liar. I don't blame you. I'm going to tell you something you probably can't understand. Being rich and famous is like being in prison. I know it sounds glorious to you, but everyone wants a piece of you. Everyone wants you to come to their parties, everyone wants to say they're your friend, everyone wants you to paint them. I had a wife. About your age. She left me six months ago, took half my money—I don't think she ever loved me. I suppose I knew that when I married her, but she was beautiful, she pretended to love me, and that was enough. After she left, I decided no more. I'm hiding here, and I haven't been this happy in thirty years. I may never leave."

I had all my stuff. He didn't make any moves to get in my way—he was standing in the same spot he was when he handed me my money.

"I'm sorry about your wife. That all sounds tough."

"You don't really think so. You think it sounds glorious to have money. You can't imagine having money and having problems."

"I think it'd solve a lot of them."

"Well, thank you for coming. I'll see you next week?"

"Yeah, sure."

Finally he moved—he walked right towards me and past me, to the door. He held it open. I picked up everything, walked out of the apartment.

About his story, I was pretty sure it was bullshit. A lot of lonely people have stories they tell you, things they may even start to believe themselves. There was an old lady in seven who said she was some kind of Russian princess before she got evicted for not paying the rent, and another guy who said he was an actor, but I'd never seen him in anything. I guess a lot of people wouldn't have much to talk about if they didn't make stuff up.

When I got back to my apartment, I could hear Jake talking inside. I paused up close to the window. I couldn't make out the words, he was talking real quiet, but he'd laugh now and then. I threw open the door fast, and he looked up like he'd been caught. Just for a second, then he said into the phone nice and loud and clear "okay, I'll check that out. Thank you for calling."

He hung up and turned the television on. A baseball game, not that he gives a shit about baseball. "The guy in seven has a leak."

"I didn't ask."

"You're back fast. Were you in the faggot's apartment?"

"He's not a fag. He was married."

"He says."

Jake never looked at me once while I put my stuff back in the closet. "He paints women, you know."

"So what? A guy paints apples, doesn't mean he fucks them."

"He wants to paint me."

Jake laughed. "Yeah, right."

"He asked. He said I was beautiful."

"Maybe you're right. Maybe he wants to fuck you."

"Gross. He's old enough to be my..."

Jake finally looked away from the television and looked at me. He smiled that mean smile. "Your father?"

I couldn't believe I left myself open like that. I felt my face get hot, and I hated myself for letting it show how much it bothered me, hated myself for telling him anything ever.

"He's old enough to be your father, so he couldn't want to fuck you?"

"Will you shut up?"

"I just want to be clear. So he's—"

"I'm going to pose for him, I think. Naked."

The smile left his face pretty quickly.

"You'd better fucking not."

"I thought he was a fag."

"I'm not kidding, Beth."

"I think I'm going to. Maybe I'll even fuck him to find out for sure. Right after I stop up at number seven and see how that leak is going."

There's that moment where you can tell someone's going to hit you, but they don't do it right away. They're just gearing up. But once you get there, there's nothing you can do to stop it, so you go ahead and say everything you want to say, because the beating's coming anyway.

"I don't know, maybe you're not screwing someone else. Maybe you're just drinking so much that you can't get it up anymore for me or–"

He didn't hit me long, but he hit me hard. I just curled up in a ball after he got the first shot in at my face, and pretty soon he went in the kitchen and got another beer. He came back in, stepped over me, sat down, and kept watching TV.

The next week, I ran into Ronald before I was supposed to clean his place. "Beth, good. I'm just running to the store, if you want to get started before I get back."

"Yeah, I was just going to head up."

"I shouldn't be long."

I waited until he had walked out of sight, then hurried back to my apartment to get my stuff. A lot of apartments I clean when they're empty, but he was always home.

I let myself in, and first thing I did was look at the paintings. I don't know what I was looking for, maybe to see what they were feeling. There was nothing on their face, so either they weren't feeling anything, or he didn't paint it if they were. I tried to figure out if they were good again, but I didn't know how to tell. All I knew is, I couldn't have painted them. The girls in them all were pretty, though, prettier than me. And none of them were smiling. They weren't sad; they were just blank.

I went over to the window to make sure he wasn't about to walk in, then went to his dresser. My hands were shaking—I don't do stuff like that. I don't go where I'm not supposed to go. But I had to know, so I pulled the bankbook out and opened it. And there it was. Page after page of deposits, all written in his neat little handwriting. I flipped to the last page, and I had to say the number out loud to make sure I had it right, make sure I hadn't screwed up a comma. Three million, four hundred twenty two thousand, five hundred and twelve.

I said it over and over, put it to music, like a little song. I couldn't imagine what you'd do with that much money. Everything I'd ever wanted in my life was so much less than that.

Then I got nervous—how long had I been standing there? I put the book back exactly where I found it, and used my shaking hands to pull out a rag and start polishing furniture. It was so bad I thought about leaving, then instead went in his kitchen, found a bottle of scotch, and took a long sip right out of the bottle.

I was vacuuming when he came back to his apartment with a bag of groceries. He smiled and went into his kitchen while I finished up. By the time he came back out, I was wrapping up the cord.

"How's everything? Life treating you well?"

"I can't complain."

"I'm glad I caught you. I wanted to ask if you'd reconsidered my offer."

"Yeah."

"Yes you have, or yes you...?"

"I'll do it. I mean, if you still want me to." I crossed my arms in front of me, like I was naked already. Ronald looked at me, sizing me up. I'd had men look at me like that before. I couldn't tell if he was being an artist or a man.

"That's wonderful. When do you think you can—"

"Right now. I mean, if you're not doing anything. I can do it now."

He went over to the area where all the paints and canvasses were piled up. "That's great. If you want to change in the bathroom..."

"Change into what? Don't you want me naked?"

"There's a robe."

"Oh. I've never done this."

"I won't hold it against you."

I went in the bathroom and kept thinking about how stupid this was—what did it matter if I walked across the room naked if I was about to be naked? Or why couldn't I just take off my clothes right in the room? I supposed that was just the right way to do it. I pulled off all my clothes and saw I had a bra mark under my breasts. I rubbed the mark to make it go away, then thought he could just start painting a different part.

When I went back in, he was standing behind the easel, waiting for me. "Where do you want me?"

"Where do you think you'd be comfortable?"

"The bed?"

He just nodded. I couldn't tell if that made him think anything, a naked woman on his bed. It's not like he made a move at me or anything. I thought about sleeping with him. I'd slept with older guys before. It's not like it's impossible. There are lots of reasons to fuck someone.

While I was thinking, I dropped the robe and sat down on the edge of the bed. I looked off to the side, tried to look like the other girls. He started laughing. "I'm not painting a centerfold for Hustler. You can close your legs."

I got red and hot again, as he tried to stop laughing. I just wanted to run out of there. But I didn't. I looked at a painting, laid down kind of on my side like the girl in it was. He was still shaking his head and making little noises when he picked up his brush and started painting, like he couldn't believe what I'd done. I just kept staring off, wishing the heat would leave my face.

I was an hour late getting back to Jake, but he didn't notice. He was where he always was, watching the TV. But something was different, and it took me about a second to figure out that he was wearing a different shirt than when I left. "What happened to your other t-shirt?"

He didn't answer right away, he looked down at his shirt while he thought of the answer. "I changed the oil in the car. It got dirty."

"Where is it, so I can wash it?"

"I threw it away."

"You threw away a shirt?" I walked to the kitchen, opened the door under the sink.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm getting the shirt so I can clean it."

"Damn it, I didn't throw it away here!"

"You throw it away in her apartment? What's the matter...she get lipstick all over it?"

He looked at me with cold eyes. I knew where this was going. "You've got a lot to say today."

"Maybe I'm tired of this shit."

"So what are you gonna do, you're so tired of it? You gonna leave?"

"I could."

"Yeah, go ahead."

"Maybe I'll move in with Ronald."

"The faggot in fourteen? Yeah, you'll make quite a couple."

"He painted me today."

Jake turned off the television and stood up. He was going to hit me, but there were some things he wanted to know first. I guess he figured he should find them out now, in case he knocked me out or killed me. "He painted you."

"Yeah."

"Naked."

"Yeah."

"He pay you?"

"I didn't take it."

"So you let some old faggot draw you naked for free? Just for kicks?"

"I think he likes me, and he's rich. How'd you like that, I run off with a rich guy?"

Jake laughed. "I don't know whether you're crazy or stupid. He takes the bus to the fucking library. He's as poor as you."

"He's got three million dollars in the bank. I saw his bankbook myself. He's some kind of famous artist who's hiding out here."

"You saw it."

"I went in his apartment and looked. It was right there. He's a fucking millionaire, and he's going to take me away from you."

"Did you fuck him?"

And I'd been waiting for this for awhile. I just smiled at Jake, that mean little smile he saved for when he wanted to hurt me the most. I'm not sure if I got it right, but judging by the look on Jake's face, I did.

It had never happened before—I'd never gotten Jake to that point and not had him hit me. But this time, he just looked at me for a long time, sat back down, and started drinking his beer again. He stared at the television, but he didn't turn it on. Just stared.

The next morning, I heard him moving around in the bathroom while I was still in bed. He never got up before me. He came out, carrying his tools, and headed for the door. "Where are you going?"

"Shut the fuck up."

I almost went after him, but I didn't. Instead, I just took a long hot shower. When I got out, he was there. He was breathing hard, and he was a little sweaty. I didn't notice it until he raised a bottle of beer to his mouth, but his hands were shaking. We looked at each other for a while, then he said, "I was just in fourteen."

"What were you doing there?"

"He'd told me he had a drip in a faucet. But when I got there, something had happened to him."

I didn't say anything.

"I think he had a heart attack or something."

"Did you call the police?"

"No. I'm not gonna."

"What are you gonna do?"

"I don't know. You said no one knows he's here, right?"

"That's what he told me."

"I'm thinking we could write some checks and cash them."

"So he's dead."

"Yeah. He's dead."

I felt like one of the girls in Ronald's paintings. I probably should have been feeling something, but I was blank. It was pretty much the same thing when I heard my dad died. I remember thinking "do I feel sad, do I feel happy..." But I didn't feel any of that.

"If you're not going to call the police, what are you going to do with him?"

Jake took another drink of beer, rubbed the cold bottle across his head. "Take him out to the lake tonight. We can cash checks until the money's gone, then say he skipped town and evict him."

I went over to the closet, got my cleaning supplies, and headed up to fourteen.

The next day, we wrote a check for nine thousand dollars. Jake had heard that anything over ten thousand, they tell the government, so we decided to start with that, and if they asked at the bank, I was supposed to say we sold him a car.

But at the bank, they told me there wasn't enough cash in the account to cover it. I told them there was a mistake, I'd sold the guy a car, he'd shown me his bankbook and he had plenty of money...The teller tapped some keys on the computer, then looked up at me. "His handwritten bankbook?"

"Yeah..."

And then, even though I bet he's not supposed to, he laughed and shook his head at me as he pushed the check back through the hole in the window.

About the Author

Jeff Lowell has written on numerous television shows and movies that you've never heard of if you're the kind of person who reads short stories. He happily resides in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife and two children.