The Dead Artist
by Nina Pratt
Bo noticed the smell as soon as she’d finished lugging the two trash bags of clothing up five flights of stairs. She flared her nostrils, trying to place the odor. It was not unpleasant, but penetrating.
Each reddish hair of her thick frizz pushed against her confining kerchief and tingled. Someone, besides Max, was there.
But where? There was scarcely room in the minute apartment for their combined stuff, let alone a lurker. Reassuringly, Max, her legitimate squeeze, was stacking book boxes near the windows. No one else was there. Bo sniffed the odor: not packing tape, cardboard, old books, sweat, or the ancient memories of cabbage and cinnamon from the corridor.
She shouldn’t be surprised that in 1969, in Greenwich Village, a rent-controlled ramshackle tenement would smell odd.
Bo’s peasant shirt stuck to her sweaty back. Underneath her braless breasts a rash was already starting. She lifted them and folded her ample shirt into the damp crack.
Originally, the apartment must have been one large room with tall, deeply embrasured windows facing southwest, and a tiny back room, looking out into a grimed airshaft. In the late 1840’s, a bathtub and kitchen sink had been plumbed, unadorned, in the middle of the large room. The toilet, in a tiny closet, without any sink, was added about ten years later. Bo wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the plumbing hadn’t been updated since. But the odor wasn’t sewage, mold, or rotting wood near a leaking pipe.
Bo knew the apartment intimately. All through her senior year at New York University, she had spent weekends helping Max fix up the place. She loved to watch Max cutting up and sanding down the salvaged packing crate lumber to enclose the tub, make cabinets for the kitchen, build in storage under the double bed that almost entirely filled the back room. Max’s back was as hard as a man’s, and her right arm was nothing to mess with if you were a balky board.
As Bo extricated her clothing from the trash bag to hang on the metal pole that crossed above the bed — there was no closet — she would stop and test the air again for that odd smell. She rolled up her smalls and put them like sausages into the cubbyhole Max had cleared for her.
The odor was a little stronger in the kitchen, she noticed, putting away the few mismatched plates and clouded glasses she’d acquired and her toothbrush in the holder Max had carved by the sink. Bo had smelled some good things in that place. Max’s Viennese grandmother had taught her to cook: savory sauerbraten, smoked sausages with apples, sharp potato salad, schnitzel, strudel, goulash, chicken soup with tiny dumplings, poppy seed cake, and plum tart.
She caught a powerful whiff by the doorway. Bo raised her chin and snuffed like a dog testing the breeze, then crouched down and sniffed again. Paint? She examined the woodwork around the door. It had been painted so many times that it had lost its elaborate scrolling and was no more than rolling hills; its chips showed layers of colors, strata of tenants, going back to the first immigrants. But no recent paint.
Perhaps it was coming from the hall. But when she pulled open the steel-clad door, having undone the chain and the double bar locks and clicked open the three deadbolts, Bo smelled nothing but a memory of cabbage, dust.
Max joined her in the doorway. “Problem?”
Bo sampled the air, rolling it over her tongue. “Do you smell something?”
“You’re a little ripe,” Max said, enfolding her from behind and nuzzling her neck.
“You’re no gardenia yourself,” she said.
“Come inside,” Max said, her voice low, muffled by Bo’s hair. Max pulled her backward through the door. “Let’s celebrate living together at last.”
* * *
The following morning, before Bo even opened her eyes, she was aware of the oily smell overlaying the pleasant scent of burned out batteries. She felt beside her to the empty dent where Max slept. Gone, she remembered, drowsy, to get the Times and bagels. Gone, and yet she had that same disquieting sense she’d experienced while moving in, of not being alone in the apartment.
She forgot her unease when she heard the familiar jingle of Max’s keys in the hall. By the time Max had unlocked the door, Bo was standing there, waiting to greet her. They kissed in the open doorway. Bo felt the bag of bagels and the heavy sheaf of newspaper press into her bare back. Max shut the door, threw the deadbolts, closed the chain, and began to slot the two bar locks into their steel holes in the floor.
“What’s that?” Bo pointed at the floor where the bar locks rested. The usual City black grime didn’t fill some of the spaces between the boards. She traced this line, shoving a chair out of the way. “It’s almost shaped like a coffin.”
Max looked down. “I never noticed that before.” She stuck her fingers into the bar brace holes and heaved. The whole section of floor came up easily.
The two women gazed down into the cavity below the floorboards. A man lay with arms crossed over his chest. His eyes were closed, the skin of his ravaged face bluish gray, and his silver hair hung down to his shoulders. Flecks of alizarin crimson, Prussian blue, chrome yellow spattered his overalls. The edges of his teeth had been worn down where the brush bristled out of his mouth as if he had been clenching brushes there all his life. Which now was clearly over.
“That explains the smell of linseed oil,” Max said with a brisk nod. “Thank the goddess he doesn’t stink himself.” She began to lower the floorboards back.
“Wait,” Bo said, “We have to call the police. And not touch anything else.”
“Police? Why?” Max covered the dead artist with the panel.
It slipped easily into place.
“We can’t just leave him... it... there,” Bo said.
“Sure we can. He comes with the apartment.”
Bo narrowed her eyes. Max renovated apartments like this one for a living. She knew all there was to know about decrepit tenements. “You’re telling me that the fine print of the lease — the one you bribed the landlord’s agent to change the name on — says ‘Includes gas stove, electric refrigerator, dead artist, all in working condition.’”
“Working?” Max asked, glaring at the refrigerator. It made a grinding sound like a cement truck going uphill. “This sucker is on its way out. I’ll try to liberate a better one from the building we’ll be gutting next week.”
* * *
By six Monday morning, Max was up making coffee.
“Rise ’n shine, lazy-bones,” she said, blowing a kiss to Bo, still in bed.
“I’m not going out there with some moldering artist lying under my feet.” Bo pulled the covers up to her chin.
Max cocked her head and gave her a funny look. She moved around the apartment in her gray athletic socks, brushing her teeth at the kitchen sink, pulling on her work clothes and picking up her toolbox where it lay across the dead artist’s feet below the floorboards. “See you this evening.” She was gone, leaving Bo alone with the deceased artist.
Washing up the breakfast things was a challenge if she didn’t want to let the fatal section of floor out of her sight.
Bathing herself would be impossible: while inside the tub enclosure, the artist might get up to anything at all.
Dressing was another hurdle: she wasn’t going to let some pervert stiff catch a look at her snatch and tits if she could help it. She took her clothes into the toilet closet and shut and locked the door. Would the little bent hook and eye be enough to keep a determined zombie out?
Once dressed, it took a while for Bo to figure out how to step over the grave to get out the door. Max had marked each key with a different color paint, and put a matching dab on each lock so Bo wouldn’t have any difficulty with the complicated series of locks. But she did anyway. She couldn’t get the first key into the lock. After several tries, she turned the key upside down. By the time she’d locked and unlocked each bolt and latch and bar, she wasn’t sure what was actually secure and what wasn’t. She’d have to take her pride in hand and ask Max to draw arrows so she got it right next time. Meanwhile, she had grocery shopping to do.
“Guard the house,” she whispered through a keyhole to the slumbering artist.
Once outside on the street, Bo felt more confident. She walked around the neighborhood, marking the location of every shop. She had a terrible sense of direction, and Max has always been with her when they had gone shopping before she moved in.
She soon found the bodega where Max often bought café con leche. The butcher gave her some pork cubes wrapped in white waxed paper, fragrant with lemon and garlic in her string bag. The Italian grocer’s overflowed with pyramids of bright oranges and towers of purple eggplants. She even found the bakery hidden away on a side street by following the intoxicating smell of fresh bread. Her bags were stuffed to capacity when she labored up the five flights of stairs.
Again, she wrestled with the locks. Eventually, the door opened, and she peered in to see if the artist was up. The tomb looked undisturbed, but she couldn’t be sure. So she backed out again, closed the door, and waited six hours for Max to come home.
That night, they had their first fight.
“Every apartment has a dead artist in it,” Max insisted.
“I’ve never heard of anyone else having one.”
“That’s because you don’t get around as much as I do,” Max said. “They’re not always artists, of course. We’ve found dead rats, mice, lots of cockroaches, and even a dead cat when we do the demolition.”
“I think the tomb was open when I came home,” Bo whispered. She didn’t like arguing in front of the artist.
“Who would have opened it?” Max demanded. “You can’t believe he rises from his sepulcher during the day. Vampires, I might add, rise at night.”
“Goddess knows what he does at night,” Bo said. Her voice quavered. She hated crying, but she could feel it coming, and there was nothing she could do.
“Bo, darling,” Max said, taking Bo’s shoulders in her big hands, “I’d never let anything happen to you. You know that, don’t you?”
“If you’re here,” Bo agreed. “But what if you’re not?”
“Oh, for goddess’ sake!” Max unslung her hammer from her leather apron and fished out some nails.
“No! You’ll wake him!”
Max gave her a sour look and began to pound the nails in around the edges of the lid. Bo flinched with each blow. What would it sound like, being nailed into your coffin?
Although the pork sizzled up nicely, it had a rancid, penetrating taste. Like linseed oil.
* * *
All during the following week after Max left for work, Bo moved her books, still in boxes awaiting the bookshelves Max had promised to build, over the mausoleum. She left a small corridor to get in and out of the door. When she returned after job hunting, she knocked on the door first, listened at the keyhole, unlocked methodically, and finally opened the door just a crack to call in softly, “I’m home!” before actually entering and pulling the book boxes back under the windows before Max came home.
She wouldn’t say that she and the artist had become friends, but they were tolerating each other, as roommates often had to do in the tight New York housing market. She hardly noticed the smell anymore.
Max and Bo were indulgent of each other’s quirks. Bo swallowed a disgusted reprimand when she saw Max drinking directly from the milk bottle. What did it matter? They shared plenty of spit every day. Bo was grateful that Max said not one angry word about the toilet paper roll. Each evening, they shared stories of the day, about the idiocy of Max’s clients and the vagaries of her work crew, about Bo’s interviews for jobs.
The artist, though, was never again discussed. Max didn’t comment on Bo’s skirting that section of floor. But she did stand, arms akimbo, astride the grave, as if daring Bo to object. Bo looked away.
* * *
One Friday morning, Max returned from work early and unexpectedly with a new/old refrigerator. She and one of her crew lugged it up the stairs only to be faced with a barricade of book boxes.
That evening Max shouted at her for the first time in their relationship. “What was I supposed to tell my helper, that my girlfriend is afraid of a stupid dead artist?”
Bo let her rail, and whenever she paused for breath, she’d slip in a contrite apology. But she couldn’t help wondering what the artist thought of all this. She hoped his feelings weren’t hurt by Max’s unkind words. And she did wish Max wouldn’t stomp so loudly over his vault. It wasn’t nice.
* * *
That night, Bo had a dream. Max lay cold under the floorboards, with her hammer in her hand. The artist was painting Bo’s portrait in front of the tall windows by the greenish light of a dim refrigerator bulb. The smell of linseed oil wafted around them, erotic perfume.
Copyright © 2012 by Nina Pratt