BY ZACK O’NEIL
Being month-to-month and cheap, the complex had revolving tenants, except for the ever-present old man upstairs who always called the cops when people played music loud or fumed ganja or congregated in the courtyard at inappropriate hours. Tonight was another episode in his crotchety narcing: two cops, for who knows what this time, had a kid on the curb out front, a spindly little broseph who sat there staring at the gutter in his big T-shirt and baseball cap at an angle.
The kid looked up at an officer, nodded, looked back down.
When they had him in the back of their car one of the baconators walked into the courtyard. “I swear to God,” he said, his voice booming with reprimand, “we’re getting sick of coming out here and wasting our time with this shit!”
Was he talking to the old man? Or everyone else?
When the cop’s glare came his way Adam took a step backward. It made the floor creak.
He turned to the bedroom.
He couldn’t hear the rest of what Eveline said because a blow dryer started up.
She sat on the bed with her back to him, rubbing something on her legs. Her friends were in the bathroom. Heaps of clothes were all around her. Above her, a little radio on the dresser surrounded by brown bottles played a cheesy pop song. The whole scene looked like some sorority pre-game, though admittedly he’d never seen one of those.
The dryer turned off, and the door opened and the girls came out. They looked at him. The blonde one smiled. “Did you come to take our order?” she said.
He looked down at his sketchbook and pencil.
Eveline turned around. After a brief appraisal of Adam she said, “Look at him, he’s so shy.”
He laughed, looked away.
“Alright, babe,” she said. “Never mind. You can go back to your entertainment.”
She turned to her friends and they began talking amongst themselves.
Back in his spot, he tried to imagine how the place was different. It’d become a flat scene now that the snouts had left with the latest snitched-out punk. Nothing new to depict in riveting detail. Just the same old thing.
The girls came out into the living room, chatting, shoes clopping. Despite the cold they wore short skirts and spaghetti strap tops. They looked cute, there was no doubt about that, all primped up and glowy.
The blonde girl said, “What are you drawing?”
“He likes that tree,” Eveline pointed through the blinds.
“That thing is fucking nasty,” Eveline said. “People don’t know it gets its water from storm drains and sewage lines. Those are turd apples hanging from the branches. I see people eating them and I think they could get hepatitis from that shit.”
The girls laughed. Adam smiled, shook his head good-naturedly.
When the laughter died down the blonde looked at the paintings on the walls, as if noticing them for the first time. “Those are good,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said. “Not all of them are mine though.”
Eveline’s friends looked at them, to be polite he figured.
“So,” Eveline said, “you okay to be alone tonight?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Poor baby,” she said, and the girls laughed again.
Adam watched them travel through the courtyard. When they’d disappeared he tried to go back to work, but found himself unable to. A feeling simmered inside him over the blonde, who had flattered him. He felt he’d never be able to capitalize on that, and come to think of it the reason he got the attention and the reason nothing would ever happen were probably one and the same. He knew he’d be pissed off if the next time she was over she started talking about some guy, or worse, showed up with one.
A light rail train stopped at the corner. Took off again. No one got off as far as he
He went to the kitchen and got his weed and glass pipe from beneath the sink. He packed a bowl and smoked it, taking such big pulls he coughed until tears came to his eyes.
Every time he tried to capture the tree he found flaws in his portraits: misrepresentations, technical errors, ugliness. It was frustrating. Something always felt deficient, either his power to manipulate an effect or recreate one or even conceive of one. Everything kept coming off as a half-ass replication that didn’t put anything interesting at the foreground, much less the middle or background. The process became laborious and unpleasant. Soon distractions were preying on him: passing cars, voices in the courtyard and on the sidewalk, distant music.
He had some more of the ganja.
Another train pulled in, announcing its presence, as usual, with recorded bells. After it passed a figure appeared in the orange lamplight: a girl in a tank top, jeans, and heels. When she got closer Adam made out their neighbor Lily, talking on a phone that lit half her face up.
She stumbled on the bumpy sidewalk, right by the tree. Cursed.
Looking her over while slouching to avoid being seen, Adam noticed, as he had before, how her arms had muscle tone to them. She was almost masculine, despite being made up and having hair fell that down her shoulders and ended in twists.
She had a look of confused concentration on her face. She said “Yeah so what?” into the phone, as she passed by and turned left into the alley.
He lit up the pipe, inhaled, ran to the kitchen, opened the back door, and blew smoke out into the alley.
She stopped. Looked around.
“Hey,” he whispered.
He opened the door wider; that caught her eye.
“Hey!” she said, smiling. “How are you?”
“Whatcha been up to?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Want some?” Adam held out the pipe.
She told the person on the phone she had to go and smiled again and came over, and went past him into the apartment.
“What are you up to tonight?” she said after he’d followed her into the living room.
He sat on the couch and shredded weed while she walked around the living room, examining the paintings. Adam waited for her to say something about them. He’d hung several of his own among more well-known ones, and had framed them all the same. On one wall, flanking Rembrandt’s The Blue Boy was one he did of an empty playground and one of a forested sky from a flat-on-the-back view. On another, a Klimt painting made up of little squares was next to his zoom-in on one of the tree’s apples.
She wavered back and forth, struggling a little to stay balanced. He liked the sound her heels made on the floor.
“You do these?” she said.
“Most of them.”
“Can you guess which ones I did?”
She picked out all the right ones, which annoyed him, but strangely, it made him feel less self-conscious.
When the pipe was ready Lily sat down next to him.
“Did you work today?” he said as she had her first pull.
She inhaled, held the smoke, exhaled, frowned at the cloud she made.
She passed the pipe back, with smoke trickling out of both ends.
“Did you?” she said.
“So what have you been doing?”
“Trying to draw that tree.”
She looked to where he pointed.
“What’s so special about it?”
“I’m not sure.”
She didn’t say anything.
He lit up the pipe for himself.
“So where’s your chick?” she said.
“Can you believe it?”
“What’s she celebrating?”
“I think the fact that she can.”
“Why didn’t you go with her?”
“Stuff like that’s not for me,” he said.
He shrugged, and tapped the ashy bowl out onto some magazine on the coffee table.
“So how long y’all been here?” she said, easing back on the couch while he shredded more weed.
“About three months.”
“Bullshit,” she said. “You just moved in!”
He gave her the pipe again.
“Want a drink?” he said.
“Whiskey. Water chasers.”
He went to the kitchen and returned with whiskey, a water bottle, glasses, and cups, then sat down and poured the drinks.
“Here’s to masterpieces,” he said, holding his whiskey up.
They clinked glasses.
Over the next half-hour they had three more. During that time they didn’t talk much but Adam didn’t mind that. She played on her phone and sometimes just stared out of the window. He had the TV on, a baseball game on mute – it gave him another thing to look at when the conversation would falter.
After a while, she said, “Oh, God, I’ve got to get up,” and started rubbing her eyes. Adam nodded, smiled, and packed another bowl.
When he turned to give her the pipe, he saw she was passed out.
He estimated her: slow, heavy breaths, head back, mouth open, limbs akimbo. Some spit dribbled down her chin.
He looked at his notepad, the tree. Back at her.
Finally something new. Something to conceptualize, make malleable, extract an effect from. But he was tired of drawing. And too blazed for it.
He cozied up to Lily, and threw one of her legs over him and put his arm around her. A few adjustments were necessary, but soon he’d set them up the way he wanted.
He felt a pang in his stomach. Whatever happens next, he thought, there’s gonna be a surprise.
He turned off the TV, closed his eyes.
The opening of the front door woke him.
Eveline was by herself. Well, he thought, there was one surprise already.
“What is this?” she said, putting her little purse on an end table.
“Ssh,” he put a finger to his lips. He tried to act confident, but deep down he knew shit was about to get real.
“What the fuck are you doing?” She sniffed at the air. “Have you been smoking weed?”
“Didn’t you hear the cops earlier?” he said. “No noise.”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“We were talking about life after school, and it got depressing.”
Lily woke up. She looked at Adam, her leg on him. And Eveline. “What the fuck?” she said groggily.
“Adam,” Eveline said.
Lily, coming to a fuller awareness of what was happening, sat up and ran her fingers through her hair.
Eveline was shaking. It made him nervous– he knew she’d be pissed, but holy shit he thought, she looked like if she had a gun he’d be Swiss freakin cheese.
“Adam, you can get the fuck out of here tonight,” she said. “Go stay in a hotel or your car or a fucking park bench.”
“I can’t believe you’d do this,” she said. “Let this creature into our place.”
“What’d you say?” Lily said.
Eveline didn’t answer.
Lily got up, stumbling as she tried to find her balance. “Who the fuck are you calling a creature?” she said.
Again, Eveline didn’t say anything.
Adam watched intently.
“Listen, dumbass,” Lily said. “I’d rather be anything than you. Some princess-ass retard. Look at you, all twinkled up and ridiculous.”
“Yeah,” Eveline said, “that’s what you think because you’re a white trash whore.”
“What did you call me?”
“What, don’t have anyone of your own to fuck tonight?”
Lily punched Eveline, who retreated, with a look of shock on her face. But she didn’t fall down.
Lily hit Eveline again. This time, Eveline hit her back, right on the jaw, and Lily fell to the ground.
Eveline, realizing her superior strength, rushed to pin Lily down.
“Fucking white trash bitch!”
Adam, stunned at the quick escalation, watched their exchange take on a life of its own. The girls began wrestling, making a sound like thunder as they rolled across the hardwood floor. His first thought was that he hadn’t really manipulated them; it was more like he mixed volatile materials and now had to make sense of the result.
Someone knocked on the door.
Through the blinds, he saw a light go on in another unit.
More knocking. Was it her friends?
They wrestled on, noisily and with fierce disputation. Soon a police car came, flashing blue and red lights. Damn, that was fast, he thought. But it did make sense.
Realizing one had to be agile enough to adapt to the unforeseen, as Lily and Eveline continued to scratch and slap at each other he left the room and went out the back door.
A row of trash bins lined the alley. He crawled inside the first empty-enough one, hoping no one was watching, and shut the lid on himself.
As he cringed from the trash smell Adam pictured the girls arguing, the angry policemen, the girls getting cuffed and thrown into a squad car, crying, maybe having to be taken in separate cars, getting processed, each of them swearing they were going to murder him or take a weapon to his genitals. He pondered these and other intricacies, but before long the cold night air and smelliness of the bin became unbearable and obstructed all of his thought.
He opened the lid, and saw the lights were off in their unit so he crawled out and went to the back porch and got the key from beneath the mat. He went inside apprehensively, wondering if Eveline would be there when he flicked the lights on. But the place was empty.
In the living room he saw some liquid had splashed onto his sketchbook. He sat down on the couch and looked the sketchbook over, smelled it.
They’d taken the weed and pipe. Well, no surprise there.
Something began making an odd noise in the unit next to him.
It was a scratching sound.
Was that someone on the other side?
No. Something was inside the wall.
What was it? A squirrel?
He closed his eyes and listened. The scratching persisted, like a slumbering gnome that’d been rousted or something dead and evil brought to life by lightning. All of a sudden he knew why his previous attempts to draw the tree didn’t work, why Lily wasn’t attracted to him, why he was so dissatisfied with every goddamned thing, why he was such a bitch-ass beta all the time.
Eveline was going to kill him. No doubt. But really they were fucked as a couple anyway, unless he was okay with being treated like a punk for all eternity.
He heard other sounds: footsteps, passing cars, music. His phone. None of it registered to any effect though.
He thought about his paintings of the apple tree. They were failures because they
looked like any goddamned apple from any goddamned tree: red, roundish, ovular leaves, sunlight hitting the skin.
One experiment, he thought, might be to do something that showed the tree the way Eveline described it. Maybe I should go out and snap an apple off, he thought. Break it open, examine it, smell it. Get all up into its disgusting origin story.
Zack O’Neill earned his MFA from the University of South Carolina. His work has been supported by two fellowships, the James Dickey Fellowship and the Houston Writing Fellowship.