The Millionaire Next Door
Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac
It was four o’clock in the afternoon three weeks after the New Year and Dan was wandering through a rather large apartment complex. Winter was making its presence felt with thirty degree temperatures and twenty mile an hour winds. Shivering from the cold, Dan looked down at the scrap of paper with the apartment number on it. He spotted the number, and headed over to it. A gust of wind slammed around a corner and nearly froze him where he stood. There wasn’t a coat warm enough to protect him from the wind.
With Tom and Alison both back at school, he didn’t have much to do to occupy his spare time other than plan for the pizzeria. Without giving him a reason for the invitation, Sue had invited him to her apartment. He had accepted the invitation on the assumption that it was to discuss the artwork for his pizzeria. Dan knocked on the door of Sue’s apartment.
It seemed like forever before Sue answered the door. Looking nervous, she said, “Come in.”
Dan entered the warm apartment. Still shivering from the cold, he said, “It is freezing out there.”
“Yes. I hate January,” Sue said looking everywhere except at Dan. She closed the door and locked it. Once that was done, she stepped as far from Dan as was possible in the little hallway.
Rather than press her, Dan took off his coat and looked around. He couldn’t see much of the apartment from the doorway. Dan said, “I know what you mean. January is a cold month. It seems to drag on forever.”
Sue glanced over at the closed door wondering if she should have left it unlocked. It was her habit to lock it, but that was to keep the bad people out. Biting her lower lip, she said, “Come on in to the main room.”
Dan followed Sue into the main room, and stopped. He turned around, looking at all of the paintings on the walls. Every painting was of the same woman. Most of the paintings were nudes. Dan stepped over to one of the larger paintings and studied the features of the oriental woman. The expression on her face was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. He glanced over at Sue and saw that she was watching him nervously. He said, “She is a friend of yours.”
“She was,” Sue answered. There was a haunting sadness in her voice.
“She’s a pretty woman,” Dan said. He moved over to another picture and studied it for a minute. He said, “You painted all of these.”
“Yes,” Sue answered stepping away from him a little. She wasn’t emotionally prepared to discuss the paintings.
“They are very good,” Dan said. He wasn’t a good judge of art, but he recognized great art when he saw it and he knew that he was looking at paintings that belonged in a museum. He said, “I like them.”
“Thank you,” Sue said glancing back over at the partially closed door to her bedroom.
Dan finally figured out the expression on the model’s face. He said, “You were lovers with her.”
Sue let out a strangled cry and, without thinking of the consequences of her words, said, “Yes.”
Wondering if he should ask, he said, “What happened?”
“Her father killed her, when he found out that she liked women,” Sue answered staring down at the floor trying to hold back the tears.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Dan said. He held out his arms for her, but she didn’t move to him. When he edged closer, she backed away. He dropped his hands and increased the distance between them. In a soft voice, he said, “You must have loved her a lot.”
“She was my life,” Sue answered relaxing a little when he had stepped back. Realizing what she had admitted, Sue asked, “You’re not going to tell anyone are you?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Dan said. He could tell that his words didn’t reassure her at all. He moved to stand in front of another picture. This had the same woman posed in a diaphanous gown. Looking over at Sue, he asked, “What is the story behind this picture?”
“I was always kidding her about being my muse. She bought that outfit so she would look the part,” Sue answered. Her lower lip trembled when she thought back to that day and the fun they had playing artist and muse.
“She sounds like a wonderful person,” Dan said. He moved over to another painting and examined it making sure that he didn’t spook Sue by his movement. The woman in the painting was looking over her shoulder back at the artist. He said, “I think I like this one the best.”
“Why?” Sue asked hardly able to breath.
“It displays a certain shyness to her that isn’t present in the others. It makes me think of two lovers being together for the first time. You don’t see one of the lovers in the picture, but you know her lover is present,” Dan said.
It was too much for Sue and she ran from the room crying. He hit the side of his head with the palm of his hand and said, “Dan, you stupid oaf. You keep making her cry.”
He was startled when a gravelly voice behind him said, “You described the circumstances of that picture perfectly.”
Dan turned and found he was facing a very large woman. His first impression was that she was fat, but he realized that there was a lot of muscle on her. Her head was shaved bald. She had a single very solid looking hoop earring in one ear. She was wearing construction boots, blue jeans, and a sweat shirt. There was a large tattoo on her arm with most of it covered by the sleeve. Everything about the way she looked and stood screamed that she was a lesbian. He said, “I didn’t mean to upset Sue. Would you check on her?”
The woman studied Dan for a second. For months she had been hearing about him from Sue. Sue was terrified of being alone with men. The fact that she had warmed to Dan was significant. The rather large woman had been impressed with how he had backed away when Sue started becoming uncomfortable. She said, “You’re Dan Parker.”
“Nice to meet you, Pat,” Dan said noticing that she hadn’t given him her last name. He looked at her and then at the bedroom where Sue had disappeared. Worried about her, he asked, “If you are her partner, shouldn’t you be taking care of her?”
Pat laughed at the suggestion that Sue was her lover and said, “Sue? With me? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m way too butch for her.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” Dan said.
“That’s okay. You and I have to talk,” Pat said walking over to where Dan stood. She took him by the arm and led him over to the table. She pointed to a chair and said, “Sit.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Dan said earning a smirk from Pat. She didn’t realize that it was his normal politeness at play rather than intimidation.
Pat sat down across the table from Dan and crossed her arms. He could see that part of the tattoo had the word, ‘Betty, ‘ in it. The tattoo looked relatively new, so he assumed that Betty was the name of her partner. She noticed where he was looking and said, “Betty is my partner.”
“I thought so,” Dan said.
After taking a deep breath, Pat said, “The story of Sue and Annie is legend within the lesbian community. From the moment they first laid eyes on each other, everyone knew that they were destined to be together. Those of us who were present could see the magic between the two of them. For almost a year, they were inseparable.
“They did everything together. Annie posed and Sue painted. They couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. It was real touching the way that they were always giving each other reassuring caresses. They didn’t even have to talk to know what the other was thinking. I was jealous that any two women could be that much in love.
“One day, Annie’s father caught them kissing outside of my bar. There was a huge fight and it got ugly real quick. Annie shouted at her father that she loved Sue and wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. Her father got this cold hard look in his eyes, and said he could arrange that. He walked away and everyone thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t. Five minutes later, he came back with a baseball bat and beat Annie to death right there on the street.
“Poor Sue was beside herself. She was hitting him and trying everything she could to stop him, but she’s just a little slip of girl. He was a big brute. We think that all Orientals are small people, but even I wouldn’t want to go up against this guy. Sue threw herself over Annie to protect her, but he pulled her off and kept hitting Annie.
“I was too late to keep him from killing Annie, but I was able to prevent him from hurting Sue. I knocked him on his ass with a Taser. Betty f•©ked him up pretty good once he was down. Everyone in the bar was just stunned. It seemed like everyone was standing around staring at the bloody body of Annie. I’ll never forget the sight of Sue, covered in blood, holding her lover. I think something died in all of us that day.”
“Poor Sue,” Dan said wiping his eyes to remove the moisture that had gathered there. He didn’t even know what to say. Shaking his head to get the images conjured up by her words out of his mind, he asked, “How do you survive something like that?”
“She tried to commit suicide, but we caught her in time. For the past five years, she’s just been walking through life alone. It wasn’t until you showed up that I ever saw her smile,” Pat said studying Dan as if he was an interesting life form. She had forced Sue to allow her to come over and watch Dan just in case Sue had been wrong about him and he wasn’t quite as nice a man as she had thought. She was glad to see that Sue had been right about him being a nice guy.
Dan looked at the door and said, “I don’t understand. It seems to me that I make her cry more often than I make her smile. I don’t mean to make her cry.”
Pat laughed at his comment. She said, “There are times when I’m glad that I’m a lesbian. You men are just clueless.”
“Did she ask me over so that you could tell me this?” Dan asked.
Pat shook her head. She answered, “No, I told you that because you had already guessed some of it and she had told you most of it. The reason she asked you over was because the women at work have been after her to be intimate with you. She didn’t know how to refuse without letting them know that she wasn’t interested in men.”
“I understand. I’ll let them know to stop pressuring her,” Dan said knowing that this was probably a consequence of Alison’s visit to the diner.
“Don’t do that. She would rather pretend that you two are an item,” Pat said.
This time it was Dan’s turn to look at Pat like she was the clueless one. He asked, “How long do you think I could convince someone of that?”
“You’re right. They’d see through it in ten seconds,” Pat said slumping back in her chair.
Dan said, “How about we tell them the truth?”
“That’s the last thing that she wants,” Pat said glaring at Dan.
“We let them know that I came here, and the spark just wasn’t there. We remain close friends, but that’s all,” Dan said ignoring Pat’s comment.
“If you were a woman, I’d kiss you,” Pat said looking over at him with wonder.
Dan slowly rose from his chair while smiling at her. Trying to lighten the mood, he said, “If I was a woman, I’m not sure how I’d react to that.”
Pat slapped her thigh and burst out laughing. She had a laugh that was a rough as sandpaper. She said, “I like you.”
Looking over at the bedroom door, Dan said, “Go take care of Sue. I think she needs your help a lot more than mine. Let her know that everything will be okay. I can see my way out of here.”
“Alright,” Pat said. Although it would break a long established rule, she said, “If you’re ever at the corner of Third and Oak stop in my place. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Thanks.” Dan paused on the way out and looked at one of the paintings. He said, “She was a beautiful woman. It’s easy to see why Sue fell in love with her.”
“Yes,” Pat said watching Dan as he left. She looked towards the bedroom and sighed at the thought of dealing with an emotional woman.
Looking much more composed than when she went into the bedroom; Sue came out as soon as Dan had left the apartment. Sue said, “He’s going to open a pizzeria. He wants to call his place Parker’s Perfect Pizza. I’m doing the artwork for it.”
Surprised to hear that Sue was drawing again, Pat looked over at her. She asked, “You’re doing the artwork?”
Sue went over to a table and held up a sketchbook. She opened it to a page near the middle. Talking as if she hadn’t heard Pat’s question, she said, “This is the picture I’ve been working on. I’ve never tried to do commercial art like this. I’m finding it rather challenging.”
Pat looked at the picture not knowing what to expect. The very last thing she expected was to see such a happy picture. She said, “It looks like they are having a party.”
“Yes. I can’t get the expressions of the two people fighting over the last slice of pizza just right. Dan wanted it to be a friendly contest, but I’m finding that a little difficult,” Sue said. She frowned as she studied the picture. The broad thick lines of commercial art did not allow the subtle portrayal of emotion such as could be obtained with oils.
Pat found that she wanted to cry, but kept a happy face for Sue. She said, “You might have one looking like he was going to trick the other into looking in the other direction.”
Looking down at the piece of paper, Sue said, “That would work. Thank you, Pat.”
“It’s good to see you drawing again,” Pat said. There was a lump in her throat.
“He’s really working hard to open a pizzeria. I just wanted to help,” Sue said sitting down in one of the chairs.
Pat asked, “Why him?”
“He’s a nice guy,” Sue answered unsure why she cared about him. She said, “You heard what he said about the spark not being there. Sometimes the spark isn’t there. People will accept that answer. I believe that he’ll protect me.”
“You were listening?” Pat asked.
The sun had set while Dan sat on the picnic table staring out at the dark waters of the lake. The frigid wind whipped up the waves and chilled his body. The wind was nothing in comparison to the cold empty feeling that had settled in his soul upon hearing Sue’s story. He felt like he had found a great big gaping hole in the Facts of Life.