The Plum Tree Apartments

There wasn’t a plum tree in sight, of course. Yet that was the nature of apartment buildings named after non sequitur nouns. It was all about diverting attention, a skill her own husband had in spades. When Louis said they would be moving to sunny L.A., this was not what she pictured. For starters, Claremont was by no means “L.A.” She wanted the Hollywood Hills, not the San Gabriel Mountains. She wanted the “City of Angels,” not the “City of Trees and Ph.Ds.” How could he have so blatantly lied to her? As it would turn out, Beth would come to find that lying was second nature to Louis–in fact, he was perfect for the alliterative nickname Lying Louis. She never called this newly developed epithet to his face, but was sure to use it in conversation with her friends over lunch at Bardot in The Village (the “main stretch” of Claremont). 

And as she chomped on her wedge salad knowing full well there was always going to be the chance that her card would be declined at the end of the meal, she proceeded to order another glass of red wine regardless. In some respects, it was as though she got off on the notion of being exposed as a fraud. Because then it would mean she could finally announce to the world that Louis was shady, at best. A hardened, cold-blooded criminal, at worst. Although he had spent the past seven years of their marriage, over the course of which she bore him two children (a boy and a girl, ages five and six, respectively), telling her he was a personal injury lawyer, Beth knew it wasn’t true. 

Her suspicions had been mounting ever since she made them leave her beloved New Jersey (yes, New Jersey was beloved to her, and she liked their quiet suburban neighborhood of Montclair–oh God, she had gone from Montclair to Claremont…literally just inverse monikers and universes, so what was the purpose?). He claimed he was being hired by a “big fish” out in L.A., but Beth was wary of such a claim. It’s not as though Louis was at any kind of notable law firm in Jersey, and he had never really set foot in New York (he was always going on about how filthy it was, even though it was arguably the “cleanest” it would ever be). Indeed, Beth found it comical that she went into the city more often than Louis did considering he was the “careerist” between the two of them. Or anyway, she was led to believe he never went to the city. Until, one day, she saw him there. Cozying up to some mafioso type in a would-be Italian part of the Upper East Side. It was a complete fluke that she happened to see him exiting Luna Rossa on 85th between 2nd and 1st. 

Just as she was on the verge of approaching him to ask what on Earth he was doing there, she saw a sinister, spectral figure–clad in a leather jacket rounded out by gold chains–follow him out. The Gangster lit a cigarette, his gut extending further out every time he exhaled. It was clear the two were still engrossed in a heated discussion that hadn’t ended in the restaurant. Indeed, from the intensity of The Gangster’s expressions, it seemed as though things were only just getting started. 

Beth decided to back away before she saw more. For she had already seen too much as it was, and she knew she would need to put the incident out of her mind if she was going to continue pretending theirs was a blissful marriage punctuated by upward mobility. She didn’t want to shatter that illusion for herself, not yet. They were only just now starting to enjoy the benefits of what Louis claimed was part of his salary raise. Seeing him with that man today, however, Beth questioned if he had ever really worked as a lawyer at all. How exactly could they afford to live in Montclair with all this brand new furniture? And why had Louis always made such a big deal about hating New York? Was it merely a way to throw her off the scent that he was actually there most every day?

That evening, as she topped the four plates she had laid out on the kitchen counter with peas–to complement the premium steaks she had shelled out for at the Whole Foods–she was on the precipice of a panic attack. Stifle it, stifle it, stifle it. This is what she kept chanting to herself as she heard Louis walk in the door with his fake enthusiasm and his fake love. The kids rushed over to him, none the wiser and not knowing any better. Never imagining at such a young age that their dear old daddy could be a fraud. 

Sitting at the table felt like medieval torture to Beth. She honestly didn’t know how she could get through it without screaming, “You’re a goddamn liar!” at the top of her lungs. When he brought up the “opportunity” that had been presented to him that day, she knew it was somehow related to the gangster she saw him with. Yet Louis claimed a prestigious law firm in California wanted to hire him, and as soon as possible. How would the rest of the family feel about moving to beautiful Los Angeles? They might have felt better about it if it didn’t turn out to be Claremont. If Louis wasn’t such a master of misdirection and false promises. The kind that led them like lambs to the slaughter. Or rather the slaughterhouse that turned out to be the Plum Tree Apartments. 

***

Boasting “sophisticated interiors” and a tennis court, how was Beth to turn down such a “deluxe” apartment complex? It’s not as though it would necessarily be a downgrade, even though she much preferred her actual house in Montclair. Then again, who could argue that New Jersey sounded far more déclassé in comparison to California? The very name alone had glamor that NJ never would, no matter how much “rebranding” it did. 

Although Louis insisted that Beth had no need to work, she decided to get a job in admissions at The Claremont Colleges, just a five-minute drive away. Specifically, she opted to work at Pomona College. Not only did she do it to keep her mind “active” and stay somewhat culturally relevant, but Beth also had the sneaking suspicion she was going to need the money (meager wage or not) she was planning to squirrel away later. In the interim, she did her best to pretend that there was nothing off about Louis’ daily behavior. Like the fact that he never “went to work” at the same time. Leaving as late as noon on some days with the excuse, “They value me so much, they said I can make my own work hours. By God, Beth, I even think I feel a promotion coming on!” Then there was that night he came home with overt blood spatters on his collar. To Beth, it was worse than spotting a lipstick mark. But she swallowed the chicken scaloppini she made with a smile and said nothing more than, “How was your day, honey?” To question anything else beyond that would have been to open the Pandora’s box she was not prepared to. 

She likely never would be, but she sensed if there had to be a “right time,” it definitely wasn’t now. The children had just been enrolled into an elite private school and were settling in quite nicely. Upsetting the balance for them was the last thing Beth wanted. Even at the cost of self-lobotomizing on a daily basis. Pretending it was all perfectly normal that Louis would disappear for days on end without explanation, then return as though there was nothing odd at all about his behavior. Beth was initially happy to turn a blind eye if it would soon lead to their departure from the Plum Tree Apartments so that they might move on to something bigger and better as Louis had promised. It didn’t even have to be in “real L.A.” anymore. In truth, Beth had been eyeing a stunning four-bedroom on North Mountain Avenue. It wasn’t technically that far from the Plum Tree Apartments, but it felt a world away. She even snuck out of work one afternoon to go take a look at it with the broker in person. Her name was Melinda and she wore the kind of bright pink lipstick that constantly seemed to get on one’s teeth, regardless of whether they were inherently “sloppy” or not. Beth rather liked her. Sure, she was as fake as the next real estate agent, but she didn’t make you feel like trash if you didn’t look a certain way. And let’s just say Beth wasn’t dripping in diamonds, so much as a painfully nouveau riche aura. 

Nonetheless, Melinda took the time to show her around the place, trying to sound as inoffensive as possible when she asked, “So…will it be you or your husband making the down payment–or are both of you contributing?” Beth gazed around the giant living room, with its modern fireplace and massive window overlooking the suburban sprawl. She was suddenly all too eager to confess, my husband–his name is Louis–will likely be paying. He’s the breadwinner.” Melinda blinked at her curiously. “Your last name is Weldmann, correct?” Beth continued to ogle the decor and layout as she confirmed, “Yes… why?” Melinda was suddenly looking at Beth as though she had grown three additional heads. 

“You’re telling me your husband’s name is Louis Weldmann?”

Beth smiled at her pleasantly and again confirmed, “That’s right.”

Melinda appeared to have ceased breathing altogether as she suddenly changed her attitude entirely about showing Beth the rest of the house. “You know what? I’m so silly. I just realized I have another showing in twenty minutes in Rancho Cucamonga. I really should be on my way.” 

Beth shrugged. “Okay…well I’m happy to let myself out.”

Melinda shook her head and insisted, “I really can’t allow that. Would you please exit the premises?” Just in case Beth didn’t get the memo, Melinda felt obliged to add, “Now.”

Afraid to broach the subject of why Melinda’s demeanor toward her had altered so quickly at the mention of Louis, Beth went along with the barely conceived charade and left. And so, that was the night Beth could ignore the situation no longer. She was methodical in how she would finally confront Louis about whatever lies he was peddling. That she had seen right through his bullshit long ago and that it was already confirmed for her that day she caught him with The Gangster in New York. She sent the kids to friends’ houses for a sleepover. It was Friday, after all, and they deserved a bit of fun after a hard week of exams at school. Although the kids were still so young, the rigors of a private education demanded they learn the importance of test-taking early on. Thus, there was nothing out of the ordinary about her demand that they “have fun.” By getting the fuck out of her subpar apartment so she could call her husband a liar to his face for the first time in their sham of a marriage. 

The funny thing was, Louis decided not to come home that night. It was like he could sense Beth was going to bombard him with a river of her shit. Still, she would not be deterred. She waited up all night, ensuring she turned the lights out in the living room so he would assume she’d gone to bed. When he finally turned up at about 1:30 a.m., he traipsed through the door like a bull in a china shop. Covered in blood. Not just spatters, but gobs of it. To sweeten the pot of confrontation for Beth, Louis also had a gun sticking out of his pocket. She wondered if he had always worn a holster, or if she was only just now noticing. She also had to refrain from using that corny line, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

When she turned the light on abruptly to catch him in this state, his reaction was, eerily, not one of surprise but elation. It was as though he was happy to be discovered. That the burden of pretending was now lifted for both of them. “Well hello there Beth,” he greeted chipperly. “What are you doing up so late? Don’t you have some beauty appointment to wake up early for?” 

Beth was cautious in her approach, getting up gingerly so as not to make any sudden movements that might set Louis off. But it appeared he was easily rattled, for he was already pointing the gun at her the moment she started to rise. “You just sit right back down there like a good girl, okay? I don’t want any fucking around.”

“Louis, I just want to talk to you. I just want you to tell me what’s really going on.” 

Louis sneered at her. “Oh come off it, Beth. You know what’s going on. You just didn’t want to acknowledge it because you’ve enjoyed the lifestyle I’ve provided.”

Beth glared at him. “I don’t enjoy any ‘lifestyle’ that threatens my children, Louis.” 

Our children, Beth. Or maybe they’re mine now.” 

She didn’t like the implications of that statement. He was acting utterly crazy. And you cannot reason with a crazy person. Even so, she tried, pleading, “Let’s just talk this out. All I want is to know the truth.”

“Please. No you don’t. You never have. You’ve counted on me to shield it from you. And I’ll gladly continue to do so. Beth.”

Before she could process what he meant, a bullet was entering her brain. And now her brains were splashed all over the walls and carpet of the Plum Tree Apartments. It was Louis’ second kill of the night. But it would somehow be easier to cover up the homicide of his wife. He would make it look like a suicide. She was easy to paint as a depressed and dissatisfied woman, constantly wanting more from her hard-working husband. As for the other botched murder he committed that evening, well, to cover that one up, it would probably require a further pile of bodies still to ensure silence. As he arranged the crime scene to fit his narrative, he didn’t even seem to hear Beth screaming from the great beyond, horrified to have been forced to die in this godforsaken apartment when, at the very least, she deserved North Mountain Avenue. Otherwise, what had been the point of leaving Montclair, of looking the other way for so many years only to have her eyes blown to bits as a comeuppance for her self-imposed blindness?

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