Panaud

Oh yeah? Yeah, I know he does that, and I’m not surprised he thinks about me. I mean, you keep playing the same loud songs only at certain times of the day… it’s kinda obvious. I’ve gotta say, though, I’m not sure if I should be flattered or pissed with the fact that he’s in there taking care of himself when he could probably, if he played his cards right, be in my bed with surprising effort. But I’m sure he wouldn’t “want me like that.” What does he expect? Rose petals and fat angel babies sprinkling gold dust on my hooters? Christ, it doesn’t work like that, Ash.

Huh? Why don’t I tell him that? You think I haven’t? Every time I try to actually get down to business with him…not like that, I mean in a discussion, he just crumpled up and gets quiet, and then I feel like I kicked a damn puppy. Let me say it like this: in my family, if you wanted to know something, or have something be known, you talked about it. My family agreed on most of the important stuff, but when it came down to the piddly little things, we used to argue til the cows came home…although I suppose in Hoboken it’s probably more like when the tan addict Guidos shuffle drunkenly home. And for the record, I’m Italian on my Mom’s side, so screw you I can say what I want. You don’t get black hair like this when you’re a fuckin’ Swede, let me tell you… and it’s a bitch to remove everywhere else.

Anyway, when there’s a difference of opinion, we talk. And talk. And talk. And then we go to bed and get up and talk some more. Sometimes we yell, sometimes we whisper, but we hammer at it until everyone is satisfied that it’s been resolved. That’s just how we are, I guess. From what Ash has told me, it seems like there was never a difference of opinion in his house growing up. Dad said something and everyone just accepted it. I have no fricken clue how an artist grew up in that environment, but maybe drawing was his release. I mean, you can’t go telling Daddy he’s wrong, I’m sure that would break some kind of Norman Rockwell law that keeps your family together, so everytime I just want to hash something out Ash goes all silent and just agrees with everything I say. Damn it, sometimes I want to fight!

I’ll tell you one thing he WILL fight, though: ants. Hates the fuckin’ things with a passion. The day he first saw one in the kitchen, he immediately went out and did the whole she-bang: spray, traps, those sticky things that never work… he was a man possessed. I’d never seen him go after something with such murderous enthusiasm… if only he’d do that to my exes. It was admirable, in a weird way, watching him do that, and maybe I’m just so damn desperate to see him show something vaguely masculine I’m taking what I can get. Who knows. I just wish he’d be more of a man sometimes, and I’d like that sometimes to not always be when I’m late for work.

“Get out of the fucking bathroom!”

“You don’t want to come in here.”

“I’ll hold my breath while I brush my teeth, I don’t care!”

“Can you even do that?”

“Damn it, Ashley! I’m late!”

“Banging on the door won’t do any good, unless you’re hoping the vibration will help jar things loose.”

“Gah! That’s nasty!”

“Besides, I’m enjoying some time without my pants.”

What?!”

“Well, I usually don’t walk around without pants, because you’re here. I hate pants, don’t you? They’re oppressive, they’re like a dictator.”

“Get out of the damn bathroom!”

“But this is where I do my best thinking! My pants are oppressive and my ding-dong is Lenin!” He will rise up!”

“God, I didn’t need to hear that! Hurry up, Vladimir!”

“That would make my ass Stalin, wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t fucking care!”

“Makes a lot of noise, kills several people with caustic nature. You know, loud and murderous.”

“I’m about to kick down this door…”

“Will, I’m sorry, but I had to.”

“You ALWAYS have to right before I have to leave! Doesn’t matter when, you ALWAYS take up the bathroom!”

“I can’t help it! There was a pogrom in my pants!”

Seriously, who the fuck thinks like that?! The boy’s a fucking loony tune, but at least he pays the rent, unlike my other roommates. I guess it’s worth it… and I have to admit the pogrom comment was kind of funny. He’s just so damned differenr, I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy like him. Then again, I suppose they grow them a bit different out in the sticks. I don’t get too many of the hayseeds in my line of work, you see, by the time they get to me they’ve been thoroughly kicked in the balls by this city and they’re nice and disillusioned. That’s how I like ‘em. It’s a lot easier to get someone work when they’re not expecting to play Hamlet right out of the box: a chorus part here, a few lines there… they’re just happy to eat regularly. To tell you the truth, I have no idea how Ash keeps the rent checks coming. I mean, Wet Willie can’t pay that well, can he?

“You’re not selling meth or something on the side?” I remember asking him once when the gaunt little bastard gave me a check, “no offense, but you kinda look like it.”

“I haven’t really slept in three days, sorry,” he rubbed his eyes like a little kid, “I’ve been working on a portfolio to send to a local internet café. Interior design isn’t exactly my forte, especially this new-age coffee shop crap, but my agent says it’ll look good on—“

“Woah woah woah!” I put a hand on his mouth and immediately regretted it. God knows when the last time those teeth got brushed.

“Back up the crazy train a bit, Ash. You have an agent?”

“Of course,” he grumbled, walking into the kitchen for coffee. I always knew he was getting his ass kicked by an assignment when he started drinking caffeine. Seriously, the dork’s even got decaffeinated tea.

“I wouldn’t get very far in the business if I didn’t, Will. You know that.”

“Of course I know that… but how come you never mentioned it before?”

He took a long pull from the coffee cup.

“Dunno,” he said after a big swallow, “Conflict of interest, maybe? It’s not like you’re not awesome at your job, I just figured you didn’t represent artists.”

.That one surprised me. I’m usually used to working for compliments, especially from the exes. Gotta monkey wrench emotions outta them sometimes. For someone to just let one fly like that was… weird.

“I’d represent you, and you know it, dumbass,” I leaned against the doorjamb, “so who’s your current agent, anyway?”

Chester Reed.”

Chester the Molester?” I tried not to laugh but it didn’t work. Ash was in the middle of pouring another cup of coffee when he looked at me funny.

“Excuse me?”

“Just a nickname, I promise. I used to work for him when I started out.”

“Really?”

“Well, not so much ‘with’ as ‘for,’” I shrugged.

“I’m surprised he never mentioned you,” Ash dug into another cup of coffee and started looking for some cereal, his other desperation go-to food.

“Yeah, me too. Guess I’ll have to kick his ass.”

Ash laughed there, halfway to the Apple Jacks, and I knew why. Chester was middle-aged and looked like he’d probably never had a fight in his life. Picture Archie from the comics with a receding hairline… or Ron Howard.

“That’s Chester, though. Tough as nails when it comes to business. The fact that he didn’t mention me, though… that must mean he likes what you’re doing. He doesn’t want you to be looking somewhere else for an agent. Congrats, Ash, you must be pretty good!”

He looked up from pouring his cereal with a weird look on his face. He looked almost hurt, but there was something in his eyes that said “I understand.” It’s the kind of face half my clients wish they could pull off convincingly.

“Will,” he said quietly, “Have you ever seen any of my work?”

“Well, there was Wet Willie…”

“No, no,” he ran a hand through his greasy, unkempt hair, “I mean my real stuff. Like, the stuff I did in college, before I had to worry about making money.”

“Nope. I didn’t know you had it with you… why didn’t you show me before?”

“You don’t seem like much the art type,” he said with a face that begged me not to hit him for that comment. I wanted to, but he had a point. As he was the guy renting off of me, he’d pretty much left me to decorate everything but his room… and I’m not gonna life, I was sucking at it. In fact, now that I think about it, I’d never even seen the inside of his room.

“Try me,” I said, folding my arms. I could see that he was nervous, but he lead me out of the kitchen and into what used to be a storeroom, back when this whole thing was a neighborhood hardware store. It wasn’t much for a room, but he sure made the most of it. The nicest part of those old buildings was that every room, even the storerooms, had nice, big windows. Back when people used to care how the buildings looked, I guess. Ashley pulled the shade up and flooded the room with harsh, morning light, and damn it all, his stuff was beautiful. He had landscapes, portraits, all kinds of pictures made with all sorts of stuff: paintings shung next to pencil drawings on thumbtacks, and chalky-looking things were all gritty next to smooth watercolors.

“You dick!” I shouted, and immediately he shrunk, although I got the feeling he didn’t really know why, “I’ve been hanging my Hobby Lobby bargain bin shit on the walls while you were hiding all this in your ROOM?”

“I didn’t want to feel like I was taking over the apartment or something…”

“Bullshit. You probably were afraid I’d pick on you, weren’t you?”

“…Yeah, but…”

“Shut up,” I held up my hand again, taking another look around, “I’m thinking that one would look good in the living room, what do you think?”

“It’s just a sketch I did of Central Park.”

“Shut up, it’s beautiful. And this one, this chalk-thing…”

“They’re called pastels,” he said sheepishly, “and it’s a picture of Yankee Stadium.”

“Put it in the kitchen.”

“But neither of us really like baseball…”

“Shut up! It’s beautiful!”

I found myself saying that a lot as we moved the majority of Ashley’s art out of his cramped little room and into places of honor around the apartment.

“It’s too bad you don’t have a doodle of Stalin. It’d look great in the bathroom.”

I heard Ashley stop what he was doing for a second while his tired brain processed the reference. Then, he broke down into that really sloppy kind of laughter someone does when they’re really tired, really drunk, or both.

“I don’t get it, Ash, I just don’t get it. How does someone who makes all these beautiful things crack fart jokes?”

“I’m just a Renaissance man, baby!”

“You’re something, all right,” I said, shaking my head, “Is there anything else in there that would look nice out here?”

I brushed past him and back into the emptied room. Ash immediately moved to a corner near his bed, obviously trying to hide something.

“Real smooth. What are you hiding?”

“Me? Nothing,” he yawned dramatically, “Just thinking of getting down to sleep. I’ll take to you later, okay?”

“Nice try,” I pushed his skinny, sleep-deprived body aside easily and found the canvas he was hiding. It wasn’t a particularly big one, so it was easy for me to spin it around and see what it was.

“I swear, if this is some kind of porn I’m gonna…”

The rest of my words just froze in my throat. The painting was mostly black, and it was done in a way that looked sketchy, but I think that was the style he was going for. The border was kind of jagged, like you were looking through a broken window in all the black, and inside there was a woman in a shirt and underwear, sitting on a floor and hugging her knees. It looked mysterious because you couldn’t see her face, and the jagged lines made it look kinda, I don’t know, harsh and depressing. Still, the girl in the painting, she had no jagged edges, she was painted smoothly and perfectly, not one dot out of place. She seemed to shine out from the center of all the blackness in the painting, all alone but still beautiful.

“…That’s me, isn’t it?”

I didn’t even care what he answered. I knew.

“Was this that one night? Love, Actually and The Muppet Movie?”

“…yeah.”

I put the painting down, even though I didn’t want to. It was so beautiful, and yet so sad… I walked over to Ashley and kissed him: slowly, gently. I could feel him go almost completely limp as I held his face, and I was afraid he’d pass out right there, so I let him go and grabbed his right wrist, looking it over carefully.

“No meth… right?”

I saw his eyes open slowly, still rolling around in his head.

“Huh?!”

“Oh, forget it…”

I took him in my arms and we both fell back onto his sad little bed. We both barely fit on there together. For once, his skinny butt was helpful. And no, before you ask, nothing happened. I just laid there with him, looking into his tired, bloodshot eyes and softly stroking his matted hair until it was nice and smooth. Even if I had wanted to screw him, and at that moment I really wanted to, he was out and asleep before two minutes were up. I looked at him while he slept, with his little breaths going in and out. I’d never seen him look so relaxed. Just watching him sleep like a rock made me sleepy, so we wound up sleeping together without, you know, sleeping together.

I swear, that guy just can’t do anything normally.

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