If you ask the neighbors, ours is a quiet abode. And by neighbors, I mean those two magnificent, framed O’Keefe paintings that hang in the outer corridor. Those beauties twitter and chirp all day about “Our house…this” and “This hall…that.” And by quiet, I suppose that the moments of stillness that permeate the empty February or May, the months in which our front doors are latched tight, could be considered quiet. But then, I also suppose that the echo in Los Alamos the moment after the first atom bomb cleaved the earth in two was also quiet by comparison.
But this is June. And in June, the doors are open, the halls are bursting, and on most days, my studs chitter with the rumble of footfalls and the heady bass of excited voices. It’s like a massage gun pressed against your stomach for 8-12 hours a day. Sometimes they stop, pause, run their fingers along your baffles. Sometimes they lean heavily against you for support. Sometimes they drag a thin streak of boogers along your pine casings when they think that no one is looking.
“Well, I’m looking, little boy. And you, fair child, are undeniably gross.”
I mean, it’s not really fair. It’s not like he was the first or the last to unburden his nose candy along my thick and stately molding. Who is going to tell him otherwise? The adults are too enraptured with the magnetism of the paintings, the thick odor of oils and pastels and pencil shavings. Are they supposed to pause in half meander, turn on their squeaky rubber heels, and chastise the booger scraper for his youthful indiscretion? I think not.
“But what do I know? I’m just a wall.”
I guess you could say that despite my inanimate stature, I know a lot. I’ve seen a lot. For example, I remember the night that they first opened the great hall. I remember the flowy gowns, the powdered wigs, the rich plume of rosewater that dripped from the tablecloths and speckled the hardwood. I remember the upswell of classical treble and deep, resonant bass as oiled shoes traipsed in circles around the arcade.
I remember the secret dalliances of the newly hired chamber maid Marcy and His Grand Lord Jacobs as they heaved and bounced their bony backs along my stout boards. I doubt that even his own wife knew about that jolly romp, or the surreptitious moans that slipped out of the utility closet just down the hall. There was some flowery discussion amongst the two lady flowers that night, let me tell you.
“Her hair was so…wiry.”
“His hands were everywhere.”
“Did you see her pasty legs?”
“I thought it would be bigger.”
And on and on, they went. I suppose I should have stopped them, but when you stand in place day in and day out, a little light-hearted scuttlebutt is oh so sweet.
Fast forward several decades, and I remember the era of the motor cars and the smolder of oil and soot that Master Shetling would dribble off his overcoat as he passed the floral paper they had spackled across my face. I remember the night when he careened too quickly along the inside path, pedal to the floor as he raced Lord Thumbershook for bragging rights and a case of Bombay Gin. The grating sound of metal on metal was deafening, a screech, a deep echo, crinkling of glass bulbs and the front bay window.
“Oh my” The first lady decried, her bright orange petals drooping with dismay.
“Not Wendy,” The second exclaimed, her pale green sunflower stalk quivering as she wept.
I lost a good friend that night. Wendy Windowshine, always so clear and vibrant. She would let just the right amount of light into the hall at all hours of the day. Even when they drew the curtains, Wendy shone with the dim light of the outside moon or the rising midday sun. She was more than just family, she was a piece of everything we aspire to in this overstuffed palace we call home. She was simple, fragile beauty incarnate.
But, that’s enough lamentation. The things I’ve seen in my tenure in this old home span decades. The stories I could tell. I mean, I am telling them now, but truly, the stories. There’s the one about the…no, that’s not appropriate. Or there’s when Colonel Michaelson…Oh, that’s just in poor taste. Wait, I know, how about I tell you the story of how I nearly died? That one always thrills them at parties.
It was a cool night in early December. The snow had resisted its normal cavalcade and instead ballooned in heavy, hanging clouds as it awaited the piercing dew of an Oxford mid-morning. Three stories above, old Roofus, his slate shingles slick with moisture, held his breath as the wind buffeted the freezing rain.
“Hang in there old buddy.” I called out. The fair ladies twittered, Mrs. Sunflower all but shivering her way out of her terracotta pot as she awaited the coming gale.
There was a slam, a noise we knew all too well. “Young Petersman’s home.” Drury Mains, the mid-manor double wide called back, his locks chattering with cold.
“Steady girls, I whispered, steeling myself against the impending clamor. There were heavy footfalls, sticky boots coated in mud paraded down the long, cedar planking. In each footprint, you could see chunks of soil and dewy mud cling, smothering the once-buffed face of good old Freddy Floorsmith.
“I’m home, you old harpie!” Young Petersman called out. Then he sluiced into his room at the end of the first main hall and slammed Danny Doormount hard. We all shook. The ladies quivered in their frames, I in my footings. A sharp breeze ripped through the hallway. Drury Mains was ajar.
“Close it up, old man!” I called out to Drury. He couldn’t respond. In the hurry, his knobs had been snared in the thick woolen folds of Grandma Petersman’s scarfs. He was jammed open, and no amount of shifting or sifting was going to close up the inside world to the frigid winds that whipped down the empty hallways.
“He’s stuck open.” Lady Petunia exclaimed.
“Like a rusty old gate.” Lady Sunflower offered needlessly.
“He’ll wriggle free, just you wait.” I comforted, knowing full well that Drury was done for until help came. And who knew, in this grand old house, when such help might find its way to our little corridor. That’s when I heard the sound. It reminded me of a throaty wheeze, like a shudder of steam forced through a small copper pipe. Then there was a cough, a wet sneeze, and several silent, careful footsteps. Someone was inside the house. And it wasn’t anyone we were expecting.
“Who…” The first lady started. I shushed her immediately, and we all froze in place. A shadowy figure crept by, his toes pointed, his arms outstretched, dragging thick, craggy fingernails down the side of my face. I could feel my paper tearing, could feel those uncut, brittle pointers grating against my perfectly sanded wood. He dipped one hand into his pocket and dug around for something I couldn’t quite make out.
“It’s a…” The second lady gasped. Her petals quaked. She nearly fell from her perch.
Soon, he was in full view, just inches from the Young Petersman’s door. In his right hand, he held a dark, shadowed revolver. In his left hand was a leather sap. His face was masked with black skiwear that allowed only two horrific eyes to blaze from behind the thick fabric. He steadied himself and then lashed out with his right leg, kicking the Danny Doormount in swiftly and pointing the revolver ahead into the darkness. From within the room, we heard a shout. Then three shots. Then running.
The masked wraith fled out of the young master’s room, careening down the hallway and dragging some sticky liquid along my face. I sputtered and tried to spit it out. The metallic twinge cut into my lips, coated my cheeks. A fourth shot rang out, and I felt a prick. It wasn’t so much of a deep gouge or cut, like the day I had been hewn from the tall oak trunks of the Riverdale field. It was more like a jab with a dowel, a piercing of flesh and form, like the hammering of nail heads that held me tight to the studs.
“Oh, my.” I heard Lady Sunflower exclaim.
“He’s been hit.” Lady Petunia whispered. Then they both fell silent as Young Petersman pounded his way down the hallway screaming and waving a long, black pistol over his head.
“Owww.” I had managed before passing out from shock.
Nearly three weeks passed before they brought in the doctor. In that time, I swept in and out of consciousness, my mind racing through my brief, but storied history. The things this old wall had seen. And maybe that was enough. Maybe it was enough to have lived this moment and all the moments before. And even when I felt that cold, deep carving of the chisel and the soothing grate of the sand paper along my face, I was still resolved to accept my fate, even if these were my last days on earth.
The truth was, I had seen and lived so much that I really didn’t know what more I could siphon from this world. I had lived through weddings, deaths, tears, love, anger, births, handovers, and politics. I had seen it all, and somehow, if I was given a chance to recover my wits just one more time, who knew what more I would bear witness to.
There are some of us, mainly the prefab guys over on Chancery Street who put their faith in modern methods of construction, lots of off-site joinery and thick putty and sometimes a nip or tuck to fit in tighter. But my doctor, let me tell you, he was a real miracle worker. He worked in deep with the traditional tools and spared no time or expense. A true artisan. And when he had finished with his carving and shaving and filling and painting and papering, I felt like a teenager again. I felt strong. Honestly, I felt grateful.
When I woke, the ladies were gone. Their spaces had been painted over and I felt my heart breaking when I thought of all the nights we had spent spinning yarns back and forth across the hallway. I tried to look at the bright side, particularly given that all of me was now a bright side with a new wall smell that would permeate the house for weeks. But I was sad all the same.
“Oh, Wally….” I heard a voice.
“Wally Manorhouse, wipe that sad look off your face and give us a grin.” I knew that voice.
I looked down the hallway, and hanging on either side of the door, I saw my two ladies, both recast and updated in glitzy silver metal frames as they swayed from stout hooks.
“You’re not…You’re here!” I exclaimed, a bit too forcefully. But I then recovered my wits and offered a bit more reserved assessment. “You’ve moved. You can see the whole house from there.”
They twittered and grinned. They both knew that things were about to get a whole lot more interesting.
I don’t know what the future holds. But if the past is any indication, my stories are likely to be filled with reflections on the rapacious human spirit and its unending pursuit of adventure, greed, and unrequited love. And maybe in between, I’ll remember some of the juicy tidbits that so many of you come to hear.
I won’t disappoint. I mean, what else can I do? I’m a wall. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.