Fiction

Paint Job

By Keith LaFountaine

            The tenants in 217 had called Matthew about a mold problem, declaring it to be a “god damn national emergency”. The call had produced an eyeroll, the type his wife didn’t like, but looking at the walls now he realized how much time he had wasted entertaining their pleas for help.

            Standing behind him was Mr. Margot, the patriarch of the family. His arms were crossed, and his bald head shone underneath the ceiling lamps. Matthew was sure he was thinking something horrible. Reciting in his head how much of a bastard his landlord was, how difficult it was to get ahold of him, or how he didn’t respond to every little call at the drop of a hat. But if Matthew dropped everything whenever a tenant called him with a complaint, he would spend two-thirds his time listening to tongues flapping around. He was an astute man, a businessman, and his time was valuable.

            Matthew wrinkled his nose. The mold problem, as it stood, was not really a problem. A speckle of black had sprouted in the corner of the wall in the back bedroom. Hell, calling it a speckle was being generous.

            “It’s black mold,” Mr. Margot said. “Fuckin’ black mold. Tommy’s been coughin’ up a lung ‘cause o’ this shit.”

            Matthew sighed and rubbed his eyes. He turned and slipped one of his hands into his slacks’ pocket. He used the other to emphasize his points: a lesson from his father.

            “Mr. Margot, I understand your concerns, but, frankly, there’s nothing I can do here,” he said. “You’ve got mold. Well, mold is the product of moisture. I see you’ve got a washer and dryer installed in your hallway. Well, that’s mighty fine. I prefer having my own washer and dryer over going to the laundromat, too. There’re some unsavory types there. But dryers create moisture. Moisture creates mold. You see your dilemma here?”
            Anger flurried in Mr. Margot’s eyes, but Matthew was already pushing by him, walking down the thin hallway toward the front door.

“You can’t just leave that shit here! My kid has asthma. I know it don’t look like much to you, but that’s a health concern right there.”
            Matthew sighed and turned on his heel. “Mr. Margot, as I’m sure you’re aware, you signed a document when you moved into this apartment. That document described every bit of damage this apartment had. Any damage you cause is yours to fix, per the lease. So, I understand your concern about your son, but there was no mold recorded when you moved into the apartment. Now that you have a washer and dryer in your unit, you have created moisture. You follow?”

He grabbed his coat from the hook next to the door and slipped it around his shoulders. Mr. Margot’s eyes were practically popping out of his head. A large vein protruded from his forehead, throbbing and thick. His lips were spluttering as he searched for some sort of retort – something that would force Matthew to do what he wanted. Every tenant had given him a similar look. Once, he had been called because a single-mother’s child had broken a window by throwing a toy car at it. She had cried then, big, blobby tears streaming out of pretty, reddened eyes. She had been young, maybe twenty-three at the most, and she had begged him to fix it. But he was not in the business of giving away free maintenance, nor of giving handouts. If she wanted to suck the government’s teat, that was her business. He was not going to be subjected to such manipulative tendencies.

“Of course, if you are unhappy with this, you are always welcome to break your lease and move. That would mean I would have to keep your security deposit and you would have to pay me for the remaining months– six, correct?”
            Mr. Margot nodded. The anger was dissipating, being replaced with cold realization. That was something Matthew could work with. Angry tenants were likely to spout ridiculous nonsense about going to the press or calling the Better Business Bureau. When staring down the barrel of homelessness, of becoming the thing they pulled their children away from when walking down busy streets, they always complied.

“Please,” Mr. Margot said. “I’m desperate. It’s his life! What would you do if your kid’s life was at risk?”

Matthew sighed again. He rubbed his nose and stuck his hands in his pockets.

“Look,” he said. “I understand this can be frustrating. You’re in a building of four, and trust me, all four of them have something they’re mad at me about. There’s a nice basement in your building. Right now, it just has storage in it, right?”
            “Yeah,” Mr. Margot said.

“Okay, well, what if I installed a washer and dryer down there? Coin op, of course. But it would take the source of the moisture away from your home and reduce the possibility of more mold cropping up. Does that sound like a good plan?”

Mr. Margot sat with the information, the cogs in his mind turning, the invisible accountant that sat in the forefront of his brain crunching numbers.

Matthew zipped up his coat and plastered a real-estate smile on his face. He knew what the man’s answer would be. The other tenants in the building had already agreed.

When he got back to his truck, he phoned his maintenance man and their painter. Over the course of twenty-five minutes, he chewed them new assholes and told them if they couldn’t paint over a little mold, they should get a new profession.

*

            Nausea curdled Matthew’s stomach as he watched Joel, his mechanic, install the washer and dryer. He didn’t relish the idea of tenants washing their clothes in the basement. The cement walls were slickened with condensation. Belongings were stacked up on wooden pallets: discarded electronics, old futons that were crowded in thick mold, broken computers, totes filled with sheets, and more. It was a pig stye, a horrifying display of poverty that roiled his gut. He was glad when he rushed up the rickety stairs and breathed fresh air, leaving behind the musty horrors below.

            It was three months before he heard about Mr. Margot again. He was headed across town for a meeting when his cell phone began to ring in its cradle. Just as he was getting to the good part in CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising”, too. He answered begrudgingly, killing the music.

            “Sarah, what is it? I’m on the road.”
            “We…we’ve got a problem, Matthew.”

            “What kind of problem?” he asked.

            “The kind that involves cops,” she said. “We need you at the office now.”
            Matthew swore and shook his head. “Fine, be there in twenty.”

He stabbed a finger at the red END button and grumbled under his breath as he pulled off at the next exit.

            Mr. Arthur Margot was dead.

            The detective who had been assigned to the case – Amy, a blonde woman in her late thirties with a rough complexion and purple bags under her eyes – had walked him through the what had happened. It hadn’t truly clicked into place until he visited the apartment.

            Sarah and Amy had led him through the front door, which had been cordoned off with yellow CAUTION tape. The back bedroom had a similar string of tape across the open doorway. Plastic markers had been placed on the floor. A pool of blood was seeping out from the living room, soaking deep into the carpet. Vomit began to crawl up Matthew’s esophagus as he thought about how much money he would have to sink into the place just to make it livable. Replacing the carpeting alone would cost a few thousand dollars. Knowing his luck, he’d have to rip up the floorboards and replace those, too.

            His stomach sank further when he saw the large splatter of blood on the wall. It was turning brown, thick streaks running down. Bits of white matter were visible, embedded in the beige paint. It was the spot where Mr. Arthur Margot had stuck a revolver in his mouth.

            Black mold was omnipresent in the back bedroom. It climbed in the corners, meeting the floor and the ceiling and spreading outward. It was under the windowsill, sweeping upward in matching L’s. Behind the door, by the bed, on the ceiling – it was everywhere. It exuded an earthy odor, one that was suffocating and thick.

The boy had died in the back bedroom, on the bed that was still pressed up against the side wall. Amy had not shown him the photo, but Matthew assumed it had been related to his asthma. Again, the hot acid boiled in his gut and frothed up his throat. He would have to fucking rebuild now. Probably the entire apartment. Maybe the entire building. But maybe he could hire a better painter. Someone who was discreet. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed inevitable. Tony was a nice guy, but he had to go. In the rental business, death was a business-killer.

The last place they visited was the basement. The wooden stairs rocked side to side as they descended. It had fallen further into degradation since the installation of the washer and dryer three months prior. An inch of water covered the floor. Black rot was visible in every wooden pallet. Spiders hung from the ceiling, clinging to webs in the rafters, their eight eyes gleaming as Amy pointed her black flashlight this way and that.

Sarah had told him that Arthur’s wife had broken her neck on the stairs. She had been bringing down a load of laundry when slipped and tumbled. Arthur had been the one who found her.

“It’s a tragedy,” he said. “A real tragedy. I’m so sorry about this.”

“Mr. Felber,” Amy said coldly, “I need you to know we consider this a matter of the utmost concern. A public health issue, really. You have three other tenants in this building, correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” he said.

“Well, I would prepare to send them to a hotel while you tear this place down,” she said. “Not right away, of course, but things don’t look good.”

“With all due respect, detective,” Matthew said, “this is not my doing. I installed that washer and dryer at Arthur’s behest. The reason there’s any mold in there in the first place is because he had installed a stackable washer and dryer in his hall. Sarah can send you the paperwork if you need it. We also have a detailed list of all the damage in the apartment, filled out by our property manager prior to them moving in, and it’s clean as a whistle, except for a few scuffs here and there.”
            The detective’s smile was thin and devoid of joy. “Yes, Sarah gave me your paperwork after calling you. Things don’t look good for you, Mr. Felber,” she said. “Let’s just put it that way.”
            “Fine, fine,” Matthew said. “Can we get on with this?”
            The detective rose an angular eyebrow, inhaled sharply, and nodded. She led him elsewhere, probably to insinuate he was an awful landlord on a different plot of his property. As they walked on, shoes squelching in the front lawn’s soft soil, Matthew brushed at his pants. A small, black bloom clung to the blue fabric.

*

            Sam Adams had never tasted so good.

            As Matthew chugged down the sour liquid, relishing the acidity and the way it revitalized his spirit, he replayed the judge’s acquittal in his head. Nothing the prissy, bitchy detective had said he’d have to prepare for came to fruition. Rather than having to move people into a hotel and drain his life savings, he just needed to remedy the mold situation and build new stairs to the basement. In the judge’s view, he was not responsible for Mrs. Margot’s fall, Arthur’s suicide, or their child’s death, but he could safeguard the apartment to ensure “better hygiene.” As soon as he’d left the courthouse, he pulled out his smartphone and made two calls: one to fire Tony, and another to hire a better painter.

            Now, sitting in his living room, he was filled with power. It coursed through his veins, a sweet influx of bright cheer perking up his usually gruff demeanor. Even Deborah had noticed something different about him. She’d soured after reading the news, but Matthew didn’t let that bother him. She would go off to her sister’s house or something. Let her sleep on a couch. He was a free man, an innocent man, and he was going to celebrate.

            He was an old man, though. Getting on in years, as his father would say, and a crazy night for him no longer involved a line of blow and two fifths of vodka. Now, he was happy if he was able to push through a six-pack of craft beer before climbing into bed with an Ayn Rand novel. He was re-reading The Fountainhead for the sixth time. He liked to pick it up whenever he needed a little inspiration, and the events of the past five months had certainly required a degree of that.

            After polishing off his third beer, he walked into his bathroom to drain the snake. Standing over the bowl with his head craned back, he sighed. When he opened his eyes, a bloom of anger flashed in his gut.

            On the white ceiling was a small, black dot.
            For some strange reason, it unearthed a superhuman rage, one that rarely surfaced. Tendrils of red-hot fire lashed out in his stomach, licking his lungs and burning his throat. When he finished relieving himself, he shook twice (more than that’s a show, his Dad had told him eons ago) and pulled up his pants. After flushing, he lowered the lid and stood on it, reaching a finger out toward the black spot. He scrubbed at it, pulled his finger away, and scrubbed at it some more. The dot remained, but now he had a faded patch of it on his finger.

            He grumbled with annoyance but stepped down from the toilet. As he exited the bathroom and flipped the switch, he resolved not to let it ruin his evening. Not only was he an innocent man, but the painter was going to be visiting the apartment in a couple of weeks. Sooner rather than later, the streaks of black mold would once again be contained. Sooner rather than later, the apartment would be rented again and another stream of $1450 a month would return, joining his other green tributaries as they drained into his checking account.

            In the kitchen, he flipped on his sink’s tap and scrubbed at the black splotch on his finger. After heaping on a healthy amount of soap, he managed to get it off. For some reason, it left behind a musty odor. He shrugged and dried his hands. Maybe there was a leak in the roof, or some water damage from the condensation in the bathroom. He hadn’t changed out the fan’s filters in a while. It was probably clogged. But that was a simple fix. He could do it in an afternoon.

*

            Matthew awoke in the middle of the night. The other side of his bed was cold, and the house was silent. The hum of the refrigerator was gone, as was the buzz of the wiring in the wall. The only sound that was omnipresent was the drum of rain on the roof. Tiny fingers, spread across the entirety of his house, pounding in unison.

            He glanced over at his alarm clock on the side of the bed. Its face was blank. With a sigh, he plopped his head back down into the pillow.

            His power had gone out.

            “God damn it,” he muttered.

            He tried to return to sleep, but it seemed to evade him – it a slithering eel, and he a troll romping through a thick bog. With valiant effort, he shut his eyes tight and tried to think about anything that would make him fall asleep. Clouds rolling over a meadow. Cows grazing on a field. His wife discussing their taxes.

Nothing.

            With a jagged jerk, he wrenched the covers off his bed. Padding through the small hallway outside of his bedroom and into the living room, he had one thought in mind: a stiff, strong cup of hot chocolate. When he had been a kid, that had been the magic stuff, the kind of thing that would conk him out in ten minutes flat.

            Mugs clanked as he pulled one down off the top shelf. After putting it on the counter, he turned around to the electric kettle and pulled it off its base. He absentmindedly pawed at the sink’s faucet handle and slipped the kettle under the stream of water. That was when he glanced down at the sink and yelped, a high-pitched squealing sound, and released the kettle.

            The bottom of the sink was covered in black mold, so thick it had garnered a shrubby consistency. It was climbing out of his drain, growing outward from the dark circle and climbing up the metal sides. The rain was intensifying outside, the pitter-patter morphing into a low roar.

            He reached into the sink for the kettle, disgust morphing his lips into a disgusted scowl. He wiped it down with a dishtowel and placed it back on its base. His stomach was tossing and turning with nausea, so he put aside the thought of hot chocolate. Few things sounded less appetizing than a hot drink at the moment. All he wanted to do was scrub his sink and climb back into bed.

            Anger replaced surprise as he reached for the sponge next to faucet handle. With harsh, quick movements he flipped the hot water on, squirted some liquid soap onto the sponge, and began to scrub at the mold. His stomach quivered each time his skin touched the spongy matter. A gag emanated from his throat when it slipped between his fingers. It felt like the mold was clinging to him, trying to merge with his pointer and middle fingers before he scrubbed at them and sent it hurtling away.

            When the metal sink was once again shining and clean, he threw the sponge in the trash and washed his hands with vigor. He would not pull them from the stream until his skin was practically melting off the bone. Above, the rain continued to thunder down.

            It all came in a moment, then: the urge to vomit. He thundered down the hall to the bathroom, pulling his hands up to his mouth and wrapping them around his lips in a tight vice grip. Then, he was at the toilet, throwing the lid up, and opening his mouth. He closed his eyes as hot acid poured out of his throat and into the toilet. Tears stung his eyes. His nose was clogged with thick chunks of the beef and mashed potatoes he’d reheated for dinner. And still it came, clawing its way out with burning claws, watery and horrid, stinking of must and…

            Oh, God, he thought.

            He opened his eyes and blinked away the tears. He didn’t need the clarity of vision to recognize the thick, black stew that had poured out of his gut. He felt it then, in the immediate afterglow of upchucking: the hairy texture, the earthy taste, the way it sat on his tongue like cat hair.

            He scrambled backward from the toilet, a whimpering scream escaping his lips. He looked up at the ceiling. The black dot was growing before his eyes, spreading outward, wrapping itself around the metal shower rod, slipping down the walls, climbing into the electrical sockets. When Matthew refocused his attention on the toilet, his fight or flight response kicked in. The black mold had formed into the shape of a hand, which was reaching out of the murky waters and wrapping its fingers around the base of the bowl.

            Matthew bolted out of the bathroom, slamming into the hallway wall. His arm went numb. Above, the rain was pelting harder, joined by screaming wind. A horrendous roar was encasing his house, a deep chant that followed him as he scrambled back into the kitchen. He turned, looking back down the hallway. Footsteps squelched, moving with a slow, lurching cadence.

He turned back to the living room, and a scream poured from his unhinged mouth.

            The living room and kitchen were covered with black mold. It was pouring in from the vents in the floor. The sink was cackling as thick webs reached out and grasped the edge of the counter. The stovetop was shifting as gobs of black pushed their way up. The rain-soaked windows and faint moonglow were being shrouded as the streaks of mold knitted together into a morbid curtain.

            Matthew turned. His gut lurched dangerously again when he saw a large figure standing at the end of the hallway. It marched toward him, one step at a time.

Matthew glanced around the rooms again, desperately trying to plan a path to freedom. The black mold was closing in. It blocked the doors and the windows. The sink continued to gurgle as it barfed up more, the mold becoming more viscous. Worst of all was the smell: the musty, earthy odor that was swamp like, like breathing through a warm, wet washcloth. It suffocated him.

            He turned one final time and found himself face to face with the figure. Matthew stared into the two pits that were eyes. He wondered briefly if the figure had a gaping hole in its head, the kind that a revolver would make if one stuck it in their mouth and tried to itch the back of their throat.

            Before he could finish the thought, the figure reached an arm outward and grabbed Matthew’s wrist. Lancing pain roiled across his skin, the kind of pain that paralyzed him. He had a brief moment of recognition, that the figure was killing him, that the strands were eating him, wrapping around his flesh and breaking it down. And then the mold was creeping up his chest, up his neck, crawling into his mouth and sliding into his ears. His hearing went almost immediately, muffled noise followed by a sudden burst of explosive pain, like a gunshot. It was climbing down his throat, too, gnawing and burning its way deeper down his esophagus, creating holes and sliding through them. Then it was in his eyes, trapping him in permanent darkness.

            He vaguely felt his legs give out and his head slap against the damp bed of mold that had grown on the floor.

The last thing he thought about was not his wife, was not his tenants, was not even his own impending death. No, it was the hardcover copy of The Fountainhead that was slowly being mulched and chewed, turned into the same black fuzz that his body was becoming.

            And then the mold reached his brain, and he knew no more.

Categories: Fiction

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