218 Maple Street

Jeremy went through his bid one more time in his head. He scanned the apartment. The trim needed paint too, not just the walls. And to start he’d scrub everything with TSP, the white powder he carried job to job. It looked like coke and boy did it peel the dirt off. Half the time these places just needed a good scrub.

Let’s see, he thought, adding up the hours. Sixteen hundred would be good. Cover his time, a few new rollers, and he could get a hotel room within biking distance. Someplace in East St. Paul. Nothing too spendy, but a clean spot. Maybe a pizza and some beer.

“Two coats or three?” 

Rob, the building manager, was a young guy in his mid-twenties dressed in a blue shirt and light brown shoes with little tassels hanging off their tops. Why someone would wear shoes that hinted at laziness Jeremy couldn’t understand. Rob was typing on his phone in the kitchen, leaning against a roll of paper towels wedged against his back and the dirty kitchen counter.  

He walked to the kitchen entryway. “I think two coats would be good enough, but if you want it to shine then we’d do three.”

Rob kept typing.

Jeremy looked back at the trim. It was basic stuff. Off the rack, big box shit. In a few places there were holes stuffed with steel wool. Wouldn’t do any good; a mouse would just chew through the glorified sawdust lining the walls.

“Sixteen-fifty for three coats,” he said finally. He felt like he was shouting, but it worked cause the guy finally looked up from his phone.

“One thousand six hundred and fifty dollars? Seriously? That’s almost double the other bids.”

“Are they talking 3 coats? I put it on thick.”

“Three coats? Dude it’s a rental.”

Jeremy felt sweat under his arms. He should have changed into his painting shirt before the meeting. The white made him look professional. He’d spent a few extra bucks for one with a collar and breast pocket.

“I called you because Rick said you did a decent job over at his unit on Bradley. Said you were complicated to work with, but that the work was good. He also said you were cheap. Sixteen-fifty ain’t cheap.”

“Complicated?” Jeremy could feel the sweat expanding under his arms.  

“He said it was a pain in the ass to have to pick up supplies for you.”

“Just paint.”

Rob laughed. “Most guys get the paint. But I get your situation.” He gestured with his hand in the air like he was playing a mob boss on the TV. “I’ll do eight hundred and let you crash here while you work.”

Jeremy leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. The sun was coming through the dirty window in patches. Crazy that light traveled millions of miles to land on dirty glass. He’d clean the windows. That alone would make the place feel new. But eight hundred? Shit.

“One coat then.”

The guy laughed again. “Pretty quick move from three to one.”

Jeremy shrugged and tried to smile. “Pretty quick drop to eight hundred.”

“It better be a thick coat. You do a good job and I’ll have more work than you can handle.”

“Get me the paint and I’ll slap it on so thick you’ll think it’s a new building.”

The men shook hands.

“A little advance?” 

  Rob smirked but pulled two fifties from his wallet.

“All you get until the job’s done,” he said before heading out the door.

“You’ll think it’s a new place,” Jeremy called from the front porch while Rob climbed into his sparkling light blue F-150. 

#

Jeremy plugged in his radio and dialed through the stations until he found something he could work to, a country station coming in from the burbs. He set the fifties up against his backpack so he could look at them while he opened all the windows to get some airflow.

Rob said he’d drop off the paint later that day and Jeremy threw himself into the prep. He used his hand-held broom to sweep the wood floors so he could tape down the paper. The polyurethane looked like it had been splashed on leaving big globs all over the place, which made sweeping feel like a scavenger hunt. He wished he still had his vacuum but wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a good job. He felt sorry for people like Rob who spent all day driving around checking on other peoples’ work.

After a half hour of crawling across the floor he was dripping in the stagnant apartment. The windows hadn’t helped since outside was just as oppressive. He stood and stripped off his shirt and hung it on the bedroom door. His exposed skin tickled with the sweat evaporating, and he felt refreshed for a moment, like someone had just stepped off his chest. Still, he felt weird working shirtless. It was unprofessional.

Once the floors were spotless, he put down the thick brown paper he’d been hauling around since his last job two weeks before. After that he got out his powder and attacked the crayon marks and greasy fingerprints that pockmarked the walls. 

Two hours later the sun was starting to set, and he’d gone over the walls twice. On the first pass he had to change his water mixture three times. After that he went through the apartment a second time. Just like that the unit looked livable; bright, even without the sunlight. The kind of place where he’d get a solid sleep.

Jeremy’s hands felt greasy and they tingled. The guy at the hardware store told him TSP was such a good cleaner that it could dissolve your skin and was too strong for glass. Tomorrow he’d have to remember to get window cleaner. No use asking Rob. He waited another hour. The people who lived upstairs were home and he listened to their movements. Making dinner, doing homework, watching TV. He checked his phone. Nothing. It was close to nine already and no word from Rob. Jeremy shot off a quick text. 

What’s the word on the paint?

He pulled out his camping mat and stretched out while he waited. But once he’d stopped moving his hunger ground into him. He tried to move onto his stomach to bury the feeling but when he rotated his back seized up with a sharp pain that stopped his breath and left him in the ugliest yoga move. That was it: he needed some food. He eyed his two fifties. One would be more than enough. 

I’m getting food, leave paint in unit on cardboard plz if I’m not here.

He pulled on his white painter’s shirt and stepped out onto the front porch. A group of teens passed on BMX bikes and he heard music coming from the house across the street. Deep, loud. It was the season of backyard barbeques with warm charcoal smoke coming at him from all directions. His legs felt heavy already as he stepped down onto the sidewalk. Damn he was hungry. There must be gas stations or corner stores nearby where he could get something hot. All the people had to eat somewhere.

A few blocks later and no sign of a gas station he felt lightheaded. On nights like these when he was a kid the neighbors across the street would have the block over for a cookout. He loved going over to their house, they had an above ground pool and a volleyball net in the backyard; he thought they were millionaires. The adults had to do the cooking and cleaning; all he did was play so hard he’d forget to eat. Maybe he could just pop into one of the yards and grab some food. Wave like he knew someone. Do people still go to their neighbors?

Too much walking on too little food, and he’d left his water at the unit and couldn’t even fill his stomach by drinking. He was kicking himself for his laziness when he rounded the corner and almost ran into an old woman leaning against the fence. He nearly shat himself.

He laughed. “You scared me.” 

The woman didn’t respond.

He took a step towards her and could see her chest rise and fall. 

“Hey, you okay?” He asked.

She still didn’t respond. He bent towards her. Deep lines ran across her face and her hair was pearly white and permed into tight white curls. Maybe she was coming home from the salon. She looked seventy at least. A shopping bag lay next to her with its contents spilling out on the ground. A half dozen cans of cat food, some apples, a loaf of bread, peanut butter.

“Hey lady, you okay?” He said again. He looked over his shoulder, they were alone. 

He bent down and tapped her lightly. When he got no response, he pushed harder. 

“Come on.” His stomach was going crazy. He lifted the brown bag upright. 

Jeremy began returning the fallen groceries to the bag. He eyed the woman again. For a summer evening she was dressed warmly in a thick jacket. She looked like his granny.

“Hey lady, get up,” he said. He grabbed her arm and gave it a little shake. A bottle stuck out of her pocket under her arm.

What do we have here?” He shook her harder and when she didn’t respond he gave a quick tug and pulled the bottle from her pocket. The familiar face of a full 500 ml Jim Beam. He looked up and the woman had opened her eyes.

“Shit,” he jerked back and fell on his butt. The streetlights buzzed overhead. “Dude you keep scaring me! Going to give me a heart attack.”

She was grimacing.

“Let’s get you up,” he said and reached out for her.

She flinched.

“Lady, it’s all good, okay?” he said but she looked scared of him; wasn’t buying what he was selling. She put her hand to her pocket and saw him holding her bottle. Scared of him? He’d been going about his night, and she got in the way.

He grabbed the bag and stood quickly.

“Stop,” she said.

  He took off down the block. When he was a few houses away he looked over his shoulder to see if she was behind him. He thought he could see her trying to stand.

Jeremy turned right at the corner and sped up. He felt like a speed walker. He watched them in the Olympics, one foot on the ground. Scatterbrained dumb shit, he couldn’t focus. Don’t run. If he ran someone would get suspicious and call the cops. He’d been seeing if she was okay; trying to help. He looked like a spotlight in his white shirt. Why was he wearing white? No use avoiding the streetlights. At the end of the block he turned left. A helicopter buzzed. They tracked you. Couldn’t be alone. He’d spent time in Arizona and remembered those immigration blimps hanging overhead watching for anyone crossing the border through the dessert, picking up the cell phone calls, scanning for hot bodies in the night. People thought it was normal. He took a right. He was zigzagging away. Pretty quick he was out of breath and sucking air. Good way to kill the hunger. 

#

It took him an hour to get back to the unit. Single family homes and brick apartment buildings all looked the same. He’d lost the chopper but was still feeling sick from the two apples he ate. Too sweet. The bourbon helped though.

Still no paint when he made it back to the apartment. He laughed thinking about how he must have looked running like a scared rabbit through the grass with a bottle of bourbon and a bag of cat food.

He locked the door and dumped the contents of the bag on the floor. Besides the food, the woman had two coloring books, a pack of old man whitey-tighties, and a few unused but unwrapped adult diapers. He stacked the cat food into a pyramid and opened the pretzels. Why couldn’t the old lady eat meat? He grabbed the bourbon and took a long pull. How good life could be, but how bad it was.

What was she doing on the ground? He took another swig from the bourbon. A stroke? He was pretty sure she stood up. Honestly, it just looked like she was sleeping. Jeremy let out a laugh. He’d probably looked like the angel of death.

Jeremy walked to the bathroom. The mirror was speckled with butterfly stickers and if you stood in the right spot, it made you look like a fairy with a halo of woodland creatures. But the lighting was too harsh, and the effect lasted only a second before Jeremy recognized his washed-out face run over with little red spider veins and his long greasy hair. He looked older than 32. He turned his head away and snapped back to look in the mirror. Back and forth, back and forth, catching the first glimpse. 

The hot water still worked in the shower and Jeremy left it running while he brought the radio, pretzels, and bourbon to the bathroom. Steam filled the space and dulled his reflection in the mirror. He stripped off his clothes and got in under the water. The pressure wasn’t great, but the water felt good, bringing the blood to his skin. The music was going, and he kept at the bourbon while he looked at his body; he was still strong. His arms were ropes and he could bike miles on his calves. True, he’d collected a gut, but if he didn’t slouch the weight distributed itself across his torso.

He thought of the old woman again and imagined her tucked in and pissing her pants without the diapers. He laughed again.

A pounding at the door snapped him out of his thoughts. He froze and listened. After a minute there were another series of pounds at the door.

He moved too quickly to get out of the shower and slipped on the tile floor, grabbing the curtain as he fell. The noise at least shut up the knocking. He lay sprawled on the floor with the music playing. It had switched to old time country stuff. Jeremy was pretty sure John Prine was singing.

He rushed to put his clothes back on and the knocking had started again. He turned the music off and grabbed his phone before heading to the door. 

Through the peephole he saw a woman and her toddler standing in the hall. There were both wearing sweatpants and ratty t-shirts and looked like they’d recently been asleep.  Jeremy didn’t open the door, just stood looking at them.

“Who’s in there?” The woman suddenly yelled. A vein in her neck popped like it was also mad to be awake.

Jeremy looked at his phone. It was after 1am. 

“Some people have to work!” The woman yelled. She leaned in and looked at the peephole. Her face got huge and Jeremy pulled away.

“Who’s in there?” she asked. “I can see your shadow under the door.”

“I work for Rob,” Jeremy said.

“Open the door.”

“It’s a quick turn, have to work late.”

“Open the door.”

“Why?”

“So I don’t call Rob right now.”

Jeremy unbolted and opened the door. The woman’s eyes jumped to him before scanning the apartment. She stepped past Jeremy, pulling her little boy in with her.

“I told you, I’m working.”

“You left the shower running,” she said, pointing down the hall. Her purple fingernail paint was chipped and only covered half of each nail. 

“Shit.” He ran down the hallway where he turned off the shower and dragged the bathmat around to clean up the water.

He was lightheaded when he came back to the living room. The woman was standing watching him while her boy looked intently at his camping mat and grocery bag.

“Oh,” Jeremy startled the boy by moving towards his stuff. He pulled out the coloring books and offered them to the boy, who looked to his mother.

   She nodded and the boy took the books. Her eyes were grey and Jeremy felt like he needed to sit down.

“I’m sorry about the noise,” he said.

“It’s fine.” Her voice dropped when she said it, like it was all too much. “I’m used to it with you guys. Think you’re the only ones who matter,” she said. The boy sat down and started paging through the book. The place was comfortable with the clean walls, just wait until he’d finished with the paint.

Jeremy leaned against a wall and slid down into a squat. “Hey, thin walls aren’t my problem.”

She laughed. “You’re unprofessional, you know that right?”  

This coming from a woman whose kid seems real accustomed to being awake in the middle of the night. Besides, he hadn’t been playing the music that loud. Some people just make excuses. 

“Lady, I said I’m sorry okay, I’ve had a night.”

“Ya, you’ve had a night. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for ruining your night.”

“Oh, we’re turning this into a therapy session. Great, lay it on me.”

She laughed. 

“I’m not unprofessional.”

“Fooled me. If it wasn’t for the paper I’d have thought you were squatting.”

“What’s the deal? You don’t know anything about me.”

She shrugged and leaned against the wall opposite him. “Just observations.” 

“Well you’re wrong this time.” He was trying to be nice and here this lady was hounding him. The boy looked happy as he flipped through the coloring books. Jeremy wished the old lady had crayons in the bag that he could give the kid.

“You know how many problems I have at this place? The last renters broke the windows, and I was the one that had to clean up the glass.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” he asked. 

“I’m just saying, this place doesn’t need any more problems. Okay?”

“Move out then.”

She laughed again and it filled the room. “Not everyone can just get up and go whenever they feel like it.”

“Oh yeah, must be terrible.” Jeremy was sick of this woman and her thoughts about his life. It was clear to him she liked having an adult to talk to, but she was being an ass.

“What’s with all the cat food? We’re not supposed to have animals but maybe the house rules don’t apply to you.” She said with a smile. 

Fuck this woman, Jeremy thought. “Nah, no cat. I took it off an old woman I found.”

She looked at him confused before turning her head towards the bag and her boy reading his coloring book. 

“Wait, what?” She tugged on her ear. It looked like she chewed her fingernails. 

Jeremy shrugged. He was drunk. “Off some old lady.”

“Wait, you stole these?” She popped to her feet.

Jeremy shrugged again. What did it matter what this woman thought? Give her what she wants.

“Rodney, we’re going.”

“Oh no! You have to go? You just got here.” Jeremy laughed at his own joke. He felt good, the booze charging him up as the woman collected her boy. Lightning in his veins. “I was trying to help the old broad but she thought I was robbing her, so she got what she asked for.” 

The woman ripped the coloring books out of Rodney’s hands and tossed them on Jeremy’s bag. She turned to him. “If I hear one peep out of this place, I’m calling the cops. Okay?”

“Careful lady, you want problems I’ll give you problems.”

She glared at him. “I’m not some helpless old lady.”

“And I’m not unprofessional.”

“You’re insane.” She yanked her kid out the door, slamming it behind them. 

Jeremy started laughing. He could hear them hurry up the stairs. When he heard them in the apartment he let out a howl.

#

He woke to his alarm blaring from his phone and the sun coming through the dirty windows. His head split but he forced himself to pack up his stuff and haul it to his bike trailer. He knew how the day would go. She’d have called Rob who’d be over soon to fire Jeremy. No need to stay around arguing. 

He packed the groceries with his clothing and mat but left the diapers and cat food stacked in the four corners of the living room. See what Rob made of that. 

When everything was secured to his trailer, he started pedaling. He was wearing his white shirt again, but it felt dirty. Maybe he’d go by the corner where he found the woman, see if she was still there. He thought for a moment and decided against it. He’d rather not know.

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