Beth planned to be asked one day about what drove the iron-like focus in her art. She’d already memorized her coy response of a wink at tonight’s events and a life lesson: that her inspiration didn’t strike so much as steep. The real answer, for which she had Mom to thank, was delicately becoming shitfaced on tea-quila.
The family recipe made four cups a pot. She brewed her first at midnight: a crisp hot toddy, honeyed and spiced. The night had been a wash. Once Mr. Coffee left, she spent about an hour fretting over tomorrow, as if tomorrow needed more than five minutes to fret about. She picked through her closet for an outfit, arranged her cosmetics in order of classiness – ranging French Escort to Bag-a-Chips, as was natural – and then hemmed and hawed over whether it was worth painting her toenails. From a psychologist’s point of view, it could only help her confidence, but it was also October. Everything had chilled. She didn’t plan on walking out there wearing sandals, and in the list of things that got her shoes off during a first date, there wasn’t a lot of room for foot varnish admiration. Well, unless she took them off more casually, like if she wore her UGGs and they got warm. But then if she did lose them, wouldn’t she be wearing socks? Her socks should be the issue here. She spent another hour picking socks.
By the second brew, more of a ginger-lemon mix, Beth had finished painting pumpkins on her foot-thumbs that were sure to shine through the thin, white stockings she’d presciently selected for such toe-thumb shining purposes. If he cared, which he might not so this wasn’t a huge deal, but if he did and she shook out of her boots, he’d be able to notice the festive designs on her toes. Since it’d be gross pulling off socks in the middle of a restaurant – she figured she could ask him to lunch, too – she came up with the idea of painting her fingernails. Now she could whip them out as a sample. There was a little DIY Halloween pattern she’d found online and brought alive by glossing her base coat with a spookcular – ‘spook’ and ‘spectacular’, thank you – charcoal. Beth’s pinkies had bats, her rings had witch hats, her middles had hissing felines, her indexes had witch faces since on second thought those hats seemed mottled, and then her hand-thumbs had pumpkins and hats and bats because they were a great look and she wanted them. A quick top coat and… done!
By her third brew, Beth started to panic. The plain taste of green tea and its burning -quila hadn’t dulled the fact that three empty canvasses were staring at her from the floor, accusing, scowling, leering. The half-finished fourth leaned on the wall, giving her the stink-eye. She begged for their patience. Rage Against the Room was her most precious work. Whenever she reached for a brush knowing what she was meant to do, a sliver of her integrity died that much more coldly. She couldn’t make herself stain the innocence of these blank three simply to take Edison’s money, not for beauty he didn’t appreciate or to save face in front of Terry. No, there were lines she wouldn’t cross. She – just… No.
Arrrgghh – how did Jess do it? How did she take lifeless paint crusts and sell them as if angels sneezed on the scenes? What fuelled her strength to smile at buyers and coo, “That’s all right! If it won’t suit your den, how about your kids’ rooms? Little girls like ponies,” then offer to slap on a free unicorn for every purchase?
“People like unicorns,” Beth imagined Jessica’s reply. It was easy, because it mirrored a similar night that ended with Jess counting flaccid stacks of consumerist cash. “It’s about the demand. Sell them what they want!”
“It’s not about what they want,” Beth would have cried were Jess actually here. “It’s about feeling passion and hate! It’s what I invoke from their very souls!”
“I don’t know about souls,” tea-Jessica said, “but I think I invoked their money.”
After her fourth brew, Beth switched to a cranberry and citrus twist tea-whiskey. That sting of desperation nearly shot her stress levels through the roof, and so she took it upon herself to tap into her stash of Calm Down Herb.
Things began feeling very, very calmed down.
Her night flushed with new inspiration. Armed with tea-whiskey that had grown sweeter with every sip, Beth found herself on her knees, willing to work and throw a small care to the wind. Purely to say she had something in the half-finished piece’s white space, she curled a single line. The relief of that progress hit her harder than expected, and by the time she finished her third tea-less cup, she was herself cramming in an entire unicorn. Its peridot horn pierced the left corner with a vengeance. Its sketchy mouth curled from a burgundy whinny. Its pink eyes gleamed lavender-hot with wrath. Oddly, her ethics felt satisfied.
She was headlong into a dragon five seconds later. The damn thing’s wings spread like a cyan fire along the length of a dark sky, cutting past loose clouds of a copper she’d found at the bottom of a drawer. The look came fast and easy. She refused to dwell on the awkward bend of its chest or varying tally of claws from foot to foot.
Edison was going to pay her for this, the whiskey murmured. She giggled. Then hiccupped.
Her next canvas told the tale of that unicorn landing on the dragon’s head, clobbering it to the ground as they streaked across the night. Or something. Her unicorn had wings now. She also turned its little taupe hooves into bricks which, judging by the dragon’s ticked frown, had really pissed it off. Her brushes smeared a soft hint at an ocean in the background. That – great, since she couldn’t be assed to draw actual ground. This, then, was a black sky with no stars, straddling a sort of water body formation featuring a red unicorn as it kicked the crap out of a purple lizard. Nothing wrong there.
The first touches of daylight swelled under Beth’s window as she finished her last, sobering, no-tea-yes-olives-Caesar. She wasn’t horribly clear at this point where the line sat between a safe outlet and fire, but she plugged in her eleventh fan blissfully assuming she was on the right side. Nothing exploded. She took that as a fantastic sign and carefully kneed away, worried a sharp movement might upset the balance.
Done! She laughed and stretched in the sweet breeze of paint fumes and wet success. She did it! Before her lay the drying saga called Pink Beauty, wraith of the ocean sky, devourer of dragons, miss-er of legs. The whole thing was hideous.
She freaking loved it.
Sell out? No, no. Bethany was so much better than that. She had seized this moment and expertly unveiled its purpose. Edison meant to buy her work and burn it. Pink Beauty relished the chance.
Pink Beauty. Oh, Pink Beauty, the magnificent lovechild of satire and deadlines. It was her littlest cancer patient against Edison’s tit-sagging Tyson. Even if he won, he lost, because that rich skeleton couldn’t insult intentionally worthless art. He’d failed to rob her of anything, and without a martyring speckle on RAR’s gorgeous face. The tea-quila had shown her how.
Take that, liver. She dabbed a point on the board for budding alcoholism.
The buzzer rang.
Ah, crap. Her mind shot to Mr. Coffee. He’d said seven! This wasn’t seven. Plus he lived here, so buzzing from the lobby looked… All right, it probably wasn’t him. Panic averted, only to revive as her tea haze pulled back and bared the types of news people rang with at 6:15 AM. She spun to her feet – ooh, that made her have to pee – and ignored the thousand pins sizzling down her legs after hours kneeling, and gave a clumsy jog towards the intercom: a sticky, beige speaker hooked to a stickier, beiger, corded phone by the door.
Please don’t be bad.
“Good morning,” the other end of the line told her. “I’m calling for Bethany Keeler. Is she available?”
Ooh. A Quebecer. Breakfast was served, and it was a clash of ‘d’s replacing every soft ‘th’, and a steamy love affair with ‘e’s. Her name had never sounded so interesting.
“This is Beth,” she said. “Who am I speaking to?”
In the breaks between anyone talking, a fine crackle of static met the void.
“I apologize if I disturbed you, Madame. This shouldn’t take much of your time.” The man seemed polite enough. “Regarding my business here, can you confirm you lived in room #516 since July 8th?”
“Um…” Had she? Beth didn’t keep those dates memorized, but it felt right. She still had to pee. “Sure.”
“And before then, you had room #616? Upstairs?”
He knew his stuff.
“Sure,” she confirmed again, slower.
“For my record, may I ask why you moved?”
No way. The landlord sent somebody who gave a damn?
“The stairwell sticks.” Holy crap! For once when she uttered those words, they’d reached an ear. Her story melted out of her: “I can’t remember how many times I said it. I sent emails, I left messages – I even wrote a letter once. I bought stamps. I didn’t know they still made those! Something on the lock is gumming the door up there, and I’ll live with everything else, but that pushed me to my breaking point. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it’s like this stairwell is sticking, too. Are you fixing it?”
“Today, I’m here only to investigate. Did you have other reasons for leaving?”
“Not really.” Once she stuffed her standards down a hole, there was little else in particular to chase her away. “Sorry, what are you investigating?”
“The tenant upstairs,” he explained, “who moved in – I believe – the day you moved out.”
Quite the sucker punch, mister. Her tea stopped sitting so well.
“Ah…” Beth’s mouth had dried. “What about him? Anything serious?”
“I’m not in a position to say.” Naturally. But he did offer, “I imagine that by now you noticed the noise.”
“You’re here about those complaints,” she muttered. “Not mine.”
“Unfortunately, no. Doors aren’t within my jurisdiction,” the man said, forming every patient syllable as the French were wont to do. “I’m surprised you haven’t moved twice, Ms. Keeler. Me, I’ve been here ten minutes and already want to douse myself with bleach.”
“You can use the can on the bench.” The community can: always an option. “It’s sanitizer. It’s free.”
The pause following this implied a good deal of thought, neatly ending in, “I wasn’t aware sanitizer came in open cans.”
“Yeah, it’s sort of on a potluck system. Mostly it’s Purell, sometimes it’s rubbing alcohol, occasionally it’s beer but…” Ohhh, it just hit her now how that sounded. “Maybe wear gloves next time. And – um… don’t go easy on the bleach.”
“I like this place.”
Yes. For all its passionate aromas of garbage and farts sweeping through the vents, it was indeed a place. The very definition of a place, she might add.
“It’s cheap at least,” Beth told him.
“I’ve seen your lease, Ms. Keeler. It isn’t.”
“But that doesn’t show the discount.” Which management tried to screw her on every month. She got a hundred off this room’s sticker price. That was the deal to shut her up from reporting them, and it was not being questioned again. “It’s a loyalty rate for people who’ve lived here long enough to know the rooms aren’t what’s advertised.”
“Discounts are standard fare, then?”
“No, it’s hush-hush, like phone companies,” she explained. “You only get the good price after you say you’re cancelling.”
“The previous occupant of #516, he cancelled?”
“I never met him, but he dumped half his things in the closet.” Whatever remained couldn’t be sold, like greasy foot massagers and back scrubs and other violations of personal space. “It’s past the thirty days. If he wants his stuff, it’s too late.”
“Hmm.” The conversation hovered there. Beth waited, longer than she typically liked, but only readied herself to break the silence after it dragged for a full minute. “Thank you, Ms. Keeler.” His voice had returned from nowhere. “You’ve been very helpful.”
“You’re –” Click. “… welcome.” Okay then. She hung up too, partly annoyed he hadn’t fixed either door and slightly concerned that Screamy’s case called for its own investigation. “You know how to pick ‘em, girl.”
Her canvasses glimmered at her.
“Carry us, Beth,” they sang. “We’re ready!”
As much as it mattered, she figured.
The clock flashed enough time for a shower and a bathroom break. Assuming Mr. Coffee didn’t plan on being an early bird, she could slide this home right on schedule.
Okay, but after one more drink.
A friendly chat with Tartra. Click the line below to expand!The Friendly Chat - Welcome to TOKoR!
Hey, how’s it going – Tartra here! I figure now’s a good time to butt in. Thank you for reading, first off, but secondly – and more important – I’m here to bring you on board.
You’ve got a role in this adventure: comments!
I picked out three reasons why anyone gets into this writing madness during my humble experience as a for-free serialist: fame, money, and pleasure. There’s also something-something-art, but let’s be honest, TOKoR does not exactly smack of that noble refinement. It is fun as all hell to write, which puts pleasure up as my all-guiding motive. It’s also why you should read this straight through to the sequel I have planned and also maybe a Part Three, but it’s triply why you should comment.
‘Cause I am going to read the shit out of ’em.
Your likes, your dislikes, your theories and headcanons, your favourite ships, your face claims, your musical accompaniments, my typos (this story’s the poster child for Pobody’s Nerfect), and all the parts you didn’t get – all of it. Whatever little thing pops into your mind, I’m not only going to read, but I so very want to. And then I’m gonna reply, ’cause there’s nothing so fun as chatting with you folks.
So that’s it! Comment. It’s a fair trade: I blind with you a literary coffee-rush, so you get to hit me with what you’re packing. Besides that, don’t forget to subscribe. TOKoR’s update schedule is… I think I settled on the word ‘wacky’.
Cool! Glad we had this talk.
You’re the best, and keep enjoying the story.