The painter woke up from another unsatisfactory sleep. The woman who lived upstairs already had her television set on. It was five o'clock in the morning and the painter had to paint before Work came along, with its yellow teeth and rotten breath, and snatched him away. The painter looked up at the ceiling. He listened to the woman's television and wondered what to do. He got out of bed. The painter started the coffee pot. He went into the bathroom to take his morning constitutional. The poor painter could still hear the woman's television. Christ, how he hated her.
"Oh, shit," the painter said, sitting on the commode. "How will I ever solve this problem?"
Just then the fly buzzed by his head.
"Where have you been hiding?" The painter asked.
"In the moldy folds of your shower curtain," the fly answered.
"That's no place for a fly."
The fly buzzed around the painter's head a second time. His morning constitutional was one of the fly's favorite moments of the day. "You look down."
"It's the woman upstairs again. I don't know what I'm going to do about her television. I can't paint."
The fly landed on the sink. "You need to paint. You need to do something before the sun rises and Work comes to claim you."
"What can I do?"
"Have you tried going up there?" the fly asked.
"She doesn't answer her doorbell."
"Have you tried pounding on the ceiling?"
"Doing so only antagonizes her. She turns the television set up louder."
"The landlord?" the fly asked. He buzzed around the bathroom and landed on the shower curtain.
"He's only good at cashing checks."
"How about swatting her?"
"I can't swat her," the painter said. "She's at least five feet tall."
The fly landed on the bathroom mirror. "This is bad news," he said.
"Please don't remind me."
The painter was finished with his morning constitutional. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands, as the fly buzzed around the bathroom. Then the painter went into the kitchen. The fly followed, buzzing around him as he poured himself some coffee. The painter sat at the kitchen table with his drink, hating the woman upstairs. The fly landed on the countertop and walked around eating pieces of spilled sugar. They were both silent. The morning was turning out to be a wash. The painter was certain that he wouldn't get a lick of painting done. It was then that the fly spotted a cockroach scurrying along the kitchen floor, heading straight for a piece of cat food. Maybe the cockroach would know what to do.
"Hey," the fly said to the cockroach. The cockroach stopped dead in his tracks. "Do you think you could help us?"
"I don't see how," the cockroach said, looking at the piece of cat food. "But what seems to be the problem?"
"It's the young lady upstairs," the fly said. "She has her television on so loud that this gentleman can get no painting done."
The cockroach turned to the painter. "That is certainly a problem. For soon the sun will rise, and Work will come looking for you."
"I know," the painter said.
"Have you tried going up there?" The cockroach asked.
"Yes," both the painter and fly said.
"What about pounding on the ceiling?"
The painter and the fly nodded.
"Calling the landlord?"
The painter put his head into his hands. "He's tried everything," the fly said.
"This is bad news," the cockroach said. But then he grew excited. He began scurrying in circles. "What if you stepped on her?"
The painter removed his head from his hands and looked at the cockroach. "I can't step on that woman. She's at least five feet tall."
"Oh," the cockroach said. "Well, it usually works for my kind." He turned back toward the piece of cat food on the floor. "May I?"
"Finders keepers," the painter said.
The cockroach scurried over to the piece of cat food and then disappeared through a crack in the wall.
"He was no help," the painter said.
"Cockroaches never are," the fly said. "I don't know why I thought to ask him."
"There is nothing to be done."
They were silent a moment. The fly flew buzzed around the apartment for a few moments, finally landing on a corner of the refrigerator. "There is one other option."
"What?" The painter said. He looked at the clock in the foyer. Time was running out. Soon the sun would rise and Work, that hairy, merciless son-of-a-bitch, would come and collect him, as it did nearly every day. "I'll try anything."
"We could go and see the rat," the fly said.
The painter's face turned white. He rose from the kitchen table and began pacing. "Anything but that."
"It's the only other way. The rat is your only chance to silence the woman upstairs."
"He hates me. I've tried to hit him with a broom."
"The rat takes it all in stride."
The painter stopped pacing. "But I've never gone to him before. What do I do?"
The fly flew off of the refrigerator and landed on the painter's coffee mug. "It's not about what you do," he said. "It's about what you bring. In exchange for the rat's help you must present him with three gifts."
"The first one is easy." The fly flew from the coffee mug over to the cabinet where the painter kept his small garbage can. "You give him trash."
"My garbage?" The painter walked over to the cabinet. The fly flew away but buzzed around his head. The painter opened the cabinet and then turned up his nose. The stench was horrid. It smelled like Work smelled. He pulled out the garbage can and then took out the trash bag and set it on the kitchen floor, untied.
"Oh," the fly said, swooning. He landed on the soft, white plastic of the bag.
"Stay focused," the painter said. "What else should I bring him?"
"Fruits and vegetables."
"Are you serious?"
"Very," the fly said, going deeper into the garbage bag.
The painter opened his refrigerator. He wasn't sure that he had any fruits and vegetables in there. He looked behind the scotch bottle. He found nothing. He looked behind the few remaining beers. He found nothing as well. The painter checked the crisper and found a black, soft lump that had once been a cucumber. He grabbed it and a bottle of apple sauce, and then closed the refrigerator door.
"Do you think he'd like this?" the painter asked, holding up the spoiled cucumber.
The fly came out of the garbage bag. "It's best that you put it in the bag, and let me examine it first."
"This?" The painter held up the jar of apple sauce. It had a yellow crust around the lid.
"For sure," the fly said.
The painter set the apple sauce on the floor next to the garbage bag. He put the cucumber into the trash, careful not to hurt the fly. "We still need one more gift."
"The rat will determine the final gift," the fly said, buzzing happily around the rotten cucumber.
"I don't think I like that idea," the painter said. "I don't trust the rat."
"Rats are as trustworthy as anything else," the fly said. "He flew away from the garbage and buzzed around the painter's head. "Follow me."
The two of them went back into the painter's bedroom. The sound of the woman's television still came through the ceiling. It sounded like a thousand muffled voices raining down. The painter thought about confronting the woman. He thought about how much he wished that he said something to her each time they walked by each other in the hallway. The woman upstairs looked like a rat, with her two buckteeth and matted, brown hair. The fly buzzed over by the bedroom window and the painter followed. The sky was turning from a quiet midnight blue into a rich purple. Time was running out. Soon Work would arrive.
"There really is no other option," the fly said.
"I'll go and collect the gifts," the painter said.
The painter tied the garbage bag and put the apple sauce in a small, plastic bag from the wine store. Then they ventured out into the hallway of the apartment building. There was no one around. The only sounds were those of fans or air conditioners, the humming of the hallway lights. The painter still wasn't sure of this idea. It scared him to go and see the rat. But he needed to paint. He needed to paint as much as he needed to eat and sleep, and this upstairs woman was cutting into his whole life with her television.
The basement was dark. The superintendent of the building had put in motion lights, but they only half-worked. Some of them came on. Some of them didn't. It was a crapshoot whether or not you'd be able to see in the basement whenever you came down there to dispose of your trash or to do your laundry.
"Good God," the fly said. "Look."
The painter looked up. All around them were dozens of brown fly strips, twisting like thick coils. On the strips were dead flies. There had to be hundreds of them. The painter put his head down. He set the garbage bag and the bag containing the apple sauce on the ground. He couldn't look the fly in its eyes.
"I knew so many of them," the fly said.
"Human beings are cruel."
There was a rustling over by a mound of blue recycling bags. The painter began walking over toward it but stopped when he heard the sound of dozens of feet scurrying. The painter stood stock still. The fly came over to him and buzzed around, until he got tired. Then he landed on the gift garbage bag. The painter looked at an open doorway at the end of the room. Soon a shadow appeared, and then standing before him was the largest rat that he'd ever seen. Its black eyes glowed like two marbles when it came into the light.
"Shouldn't you be painting," the rat said. The painter had never heard a rat speak before. Its voice was low and grave, a husky whisper.
"That's why I'm here. I can't work."
"It's the woman upstairs from me, you see. She has her television on again, and the sound is blaring down into my bedroom."
"Why not change where you work?" the rat asked.
"It's the principle of the thing," the painter said. "I…"
"You know how artists are," the fly interrupted.
The rat nodded solemnly. "And what have you brought for me?"
"I've brought my trash for one," the painter said. He kneeled down and opened the garbage bag.
The rat waddled over toward it, raising his head and twitching his nose. "Cucumber?"
"And what is this?" the rat asked, going over to the small wine bag.
The rat stared at the painter until he leaned over and took the apple sauce out of the bag. The painter opened the jar and poured a small amount onto the basement floor. As the rat ate he continued to kneel, watching as the fly buzzed dangerously close to the dangling, sticky strips of fly tape, examining the dead. "Be careful," the painter said.
"So many gone," the fly said. "What a waste of life."
When the rat was finished eating he looked up, twitching his nose at the painter. "What do you require of me?"
"I want you to make her stop. I want the noise to stop."
"That can be arranged," the rat said. "For a price."
"Name it," the painter said. The rat thought about it for quite some time. Through the cracks in the basement wall, the painter could tell that it was getting lighter and lighter outside. He could feel Work breathing its hot, rank breath down the back of his neck. "Name your price, rat, and I promise that you will get whatever it is that you desire."
"I have grown fond of your work," the rat finally said. "The canvases that you discard here in the basement, I treasure them. I can only imagine what the work that you keep looks like."
"Thank you," the painter said, humbled.
"And I despise the woman who lives above you. The very sound of her voice…"
"Makes you wish you were dead, right?"
"I will help you with your problem," the rat said.
"Excellent." The painter could already feel his creative juices flowing again.
"I will make the woman upstairs quiet. She'll be so quiet that it will seem as though she does not live above you. I will keep her quiet for as long as you wish."
"How about a year," the painter said. "A year…and a day. That's when my lease is up."
"So it shall be done," the rat said. Again the painter heard the scurrying of thousands of feet. The rat stood before him, his marble eyes closed, moving to the noise as if entranced. "There is no going back now."
"But what do you require of me?" the painter said.
"Why, I require that you paint," the rat said, simply. "Only, for the next year and a day you will paint nothing but portraits of the woman who lives upstairs."
"And you will bring them all to me as an offering. The ones that I do not take, you will hang on your bedroom walls."
Before the painter could speak, the sound of the scurrying grew deafening. Then, out of the shadows, came a mass of rats in the shape of a pinwheel. They moved toward the one rat in a circular motion. The painter rose from his knees and backed away. The fly buzzed away from the fly paper and landed on his shoulders. They looked down at the mass of rodents that had taken over the basement. They were all tied at the tail, each rat bound to the other by a hardened mass of what looked like blood and fecal matter. They appeared to be of one mind, of one body, and of one soul. The stench was horrific. It was worse than Work. The painter felt as though he were going to be sick.
"It's the rat king," the fly said. The painter looked at him but could not speak. "I've never seen one before."
"This," the painter finally said, looking at the rat, at the mass of rats spinning in a circle. "This can't be. I can't allow this."
"It is too late," the rat said. "The woman in the apartment above you will be silent for a year and a day. And you will paint her portrait for the same duration of time. Any failure to do so, and you will suffer her very fate."
"What is her fate?" the painter asked.
The rat turned toward the rat king, and then he turned back. The painter was sure that the rat was smiling. "The less one knows the better off one is."
The painter raced back to his apartment. Once inside he bolted his door, and locked all of his windows. The fly buzzed around the apartment, full of nervous energy. The painter went into the bathroom and threw up into the toilet. He looked at his face in the mirror. It was red and sweaty. He could still hear the woman's television blaring from above. He made his way into the bedroom and sat on the bed. The fly joined him, landing on the top of the painter's easel. The television was so loud neither of them could think. The sky had turned periwinkle. Lights were probably coming in other homes, and people were outside walking their dogs and getting into their cars. The morning air smelled acrid. The painter could literally feel Work bearing down on him.
From above there came a loud crash and then the scurrying of thousands of feet. The woman's television shut off and she let out a blood curdling scream. Glass broke and her bed squeaked. The toilet flushed and more crashes were heard. The noise sounded like hundreds of books dropping to the floor. The woman's pleading to the rat king sickened the painter. She begged for her very life. He heard her body flailing and slamming against the floor. He looked over at his easel. Then he looked at the fly, but his old friend sat there as still as he could be. This was wrong, the painter thought. All wrong. But then the calamity stopped, and the woman fell silent. The scurrying of feet ended. The painter sat on his bed and listened for a sound, but there was nothing. It was a silence that he'd never known.
"What now?" the fly said.
"We paint," the painter said.
He rose from his bed. He went over to the window and looked outside. The sky was now a light blue-gray. The painter figured he had an hour, before Work came to claim him. He went over to a corner of his bedroom, and grabbed a large, prepared canvas from behind a bookshelf. He'd stretched it and gessoed it just days ago. It was the most that he could do with the noise coming from the woman's television. But the painter no longer had to worry about her now. By the time she made noise again, he'd be in a new apartment, in a new neighborhood, away from flies and cockroaches, and especially rats. Maybe he'd even leave this city. Go somewhere nice, like the country. The painter looked at his large canvas. He walked it over to the easel. He positioned it and then picked up a charcoal pencil to sketch the woman who lived upstairs. He started by drawing her teeth.
BIO: John Grochalski has been published in numerous print and online journals. He is the author of two books of poetry: The Noose Doesn't Get Any Looser After You Punch Out (Six Gallery Press 2008) and Glass City (Low Ghost 2010). Grochalski currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.