Here’s one of our favorite fiction pieces from the Spring 2018 issue, an allegory imbued with hearty doses of magical realism and grit. We’d say more, but this one creeps up on you and we don’t want to spoil it. Benjamin made a fabulous recording of it with his friend Dustin Spillman backing him up musically. It’s amazing. Hit play and read along!
HOLE in the WALL
by Benjamin Soileau
I was cut down low from a year of the dreads when I punched a cantaloupe sized hole in the wall, just to the right and about a foot below the crazy Chagall painting that Karen hauls with her from house to house. She’d been telling me to snap out of it, that she couldn’t stand such blues much longer, which to me was like telling a legless man to stand up and tap dance, when my arm sprang out like a can of biscuits. It was a rental and I regretted it immediately. In the dumb silence that followed there came a dry rustling commotion, and the unmistakable scurrying of feet.
“Great job,” said Karen. “Super. Guess we have mice.”
“Rats,” I said.
I woke from a dream that night in which the floating fellow from the Chagall slithered through the air toward me like some malevolent Macy’s Day balloon, and I knew that if he caught me then we’d swap places, that I’d become stuck in the painting, bent backwards unnatural over the woman’s shoulder. I crawled out of bed and went to the living room to test out a joint, a pre-roll supposed to cure insomnia.
I snapped on the lamp and sat in the rocker across from the hole. I hated to look at it. It was a testament to the worst year of my life, a visible sign of my strained marriage and a mirror image of the deterioration I felt in my mental well-being since moving. But I wasn’t the breadwinner in my household. Karen had the career, and I’d gone where it dragged me, like a dog on a leash.
I studied the Chagall. It’s called “Birthday” and Karen had been obsessed with it ever since she’d seen it in an encyclopedia when she was young. The woman in the painting wears a black dress and prepares a bouquet of flowers, as a man floats upside down over her shoulder, stretching toward her for a kiss. Karen sees in it the infinite possibilities of love, the laws of physics being no match to a couple’s longing for one another. I’d always seen something darker there, and my dream left no doubt that it was his ghost calling on her. It would explain the black dress she wears, the harrowed look in her eyes. I decided to move the painting over to cover the hole, at least until I could buy one of those wall punching spackle kits that hungover men across the world spend their hard earned money on everyday.
Just as I grabbed the arms of the rocker for leverage I heard a voice clear as daytime say, “Excuse me.”
I glanced all over the room. I was a bit stoned, groggy, sure, but I swear I heard it. I got scared looking at the Chagall, wondered for a second if I might still be dreaming, but I knew I wasn’t. Then I heard it again. “Excuse me,” the voice said, squeaky and meek, like a child speaking through helium.
It was coming from the wall in front of me, from the painting. “Bwah,” I said, when a piece of paper rustled out through the hole. I scooted back in the rocker, cupped my genitals and for some reason, yanked my earlobe. But no matter what I did, the piece of paper hovered there. It was loose leaf, and there was cursive blue writing on it. What sort of mice are these, I thought, when the paper disappeared back into the sheetrock. I heard it being crumpled and in a second, it came sailing out in a ball that landed on the wooden floor and skidded short of my slippers.
I was scared to touch it, and I didn’t for a few seconds, but then I did. I un-crinkled it and spread it apart. It was my handwriting. It was a grocery list I’d thrown away. I read it and looked up at the hole and read it again. It said, Toilet paper. Advil. Beer. Spaghetti stuff. The word, “Beer” had a line drawn through it, but I’d gotten it anyway, and there was no doubt as to its contribution to the unhinging of my arm. “What the fuck is this?” I said to the hole. I’m not a religious man, but I started praying. “Sweet Jesus,” I said. “Dear God.” I prepared to weep for my mind when a small hand appeared from the hole. It was the size of a baby’s hand. It waved at me and then closed in on itself like it was trying to get my attention in a polite sort of way.
“Please, don’t be scared,” the little helium voice said, and the fingers wriggled at me. The skin stretched tight over the knuckles and it looked older, somehow. Used. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Jesus God,” I said.
The little index finger crooked toward me. “Do you think I could get a little bit of that? What you’re smoking there?” And then the voice said, “Shit!” and the hand retreated back into the hole as Karen’s footsteps patted down the hallway.
“Are you on the phone?” she asked, rubbing at her eyes. “It’s like two thirty.” Her eyebrows arced up. “You’re white,” she said. She put her hand on my knee. “Are you OK? Are you stoned?” After I still didn’t answer she pinched my pajamas in her fingers. “Talk to me. Are you OK?”
“Yes, I’m sorry.” I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said, and I fucking didn’t.
I stared at the hole and Karen tugged on my pajamas. “Come back to bed,” she said. I turned off the lamp and followed her back down the hallway, clutching her extra large Pixies tee shirt. I pressed up against her in the dark, but my mind dogpaddled in the middle of a black ocean. I wondered if I’d been swept too far out to get safely back, which is a hell of a thing to consider. I decided, lying there, to clean house. I asked for sweet grace, but all I could see was that hand waving at me. And that voice. I know what I saw as sure as I felt the heat radiating into my groin from Karen’s butt. As soon as she started snoring, I maneuvered myself out of bed and cranked the box fan up a notch, shut the door softly.
The grocery list was right where I’d left it. I found a flashlight and studied the hole. I couldn’t see very far either way into it. The sheetrock was thin, and the space between the walls was about two feet, which seemed like a lot. I didn’t know when the house was built. I’d never looked inside of a wall before. I put my mouth up to the hole and said, “Hello?” The air inside the wall was thick and smelled sour, like old milk. When I didn’t hear anything I sat back down in the rocker.
I was thinking I would return the pot and get my money back when there came a shuffling from the wall, and then the hand came out again and waved at me. I threw the beam on it and it retreated immediately. “Let me see you,” I said, sweeping the light back and forth across the hole like a searchlight.
“Take them blinders off me,” the voice said.
I turned the flashlight off and after a moment, when I didn’t see anything, I said, “Come on, let me see you.”
“How do I know you don’t have a gun pointed at me, and that you’re just waiting for me to poke my head out?”
“I don’t have a gun,” I said.
“Or a broom.”
“Who are you?” I asked. “What do you want?” I sat there and watched the wall in the soft light. The hand appeared once more from the bottom of the hole, and then the other. The fingers of the hands were white-knuckled where they gripped the sheetrock. A face filled the hole, slowly, from the bottom up, until it was a perfect fit, like the man in the moon. Even in the dim lamp light I could see blue green veins under his delicate skin. It was a human face, except fragile, like the face of someone who lived in a dark and damp place. A wall dweller face. He had no brows and his little brown M&M eyes blinked at me. I didn’t feel too very afraid anymore. They were such tender gentle eyes, and they disarmed me as if by a spell.
“So, can I borrow that there?” he said.
His face shied away as I neared and his little hands quivered. “Please don’t grab me or anything,” he said. I held the joint out to him and he plucked it from me in a flash and disappeared into the wall. I followed the rustling toward the kitchen. I put my ear against the crimson paint and heard whispering, and in a minute the knocking moved back toward the hole and his face appeared once more, the joint clamped between his wormy lips.
“Guess I’ll need some fire too,” he said, and laughed a tinny, squeaky fart sort of laugh.
I had a matchbook in my pajama pocket and I knelt down on the floor in front of the wall. “First you have to talk to me,” I said. I showed him the matches.
“Can I do both?” he said. “Smoke and talk?”
I flicked a match for him and he leaned out a hair and drew the doobie back to life. He inhaled and his lips spread out in a smile as the smoke streamed from his tiny nose. His eyes glistened with pleasure. He held it out to me, but I shook my head. “Are you a figment of my imagination?” I asked.
“Personally,” he said against held breath, and sailed the word out in a large cloud of smoke into the room. “After listening to you argue with your wife for the last year, I don’t think you have much of an imagination.” His eyes darted over in the direction from where he’d come, and he motioned with them. “Come on, honey, it’s OK,” he said.
A dry rustling moved along the baseboards and stopped, and he reached into the wall with the joint. A blast of blue smoke billowed into his face and leaked out of the hole. I moved over to see further back, but whoever it was retreated with a skitter.
“My wife,” he said. “She’s shy. We been listening to y’all for so long we feel like we know you. She was against my making contact, but then you went and took the initiative. Don’t worry, she’ll come around.”
“What are you?”
“I yam what I yam,” he said, and flashed me his pointy diced garlic teeth.
“I mean where did you come from?”
“From my mama, same as you,” he said. “If I knew the answers to all your questions I wouldn’t be hanging out of a hole talking to you. Your wife’s right. You’re a real tight ass.” A tinny mumble sounded from inside the wall and his eyes swiveled. “I’m not hogging it,” he said into the wall. “There’s plenty left.” He looked back at me and said, “Can I have those matches?”
“I don’t want you having matches inside the wall.”
“Jack,” he said, snatching them from me. “If you knew half the shit back here you’d squirt your Bermudas.”
“Listen, spit in the bowl of your palm and hold your hand out like you want to catch the rain.”
“What the hell?” Karen’s alarm clock started blipping.
“Just do it and I’ll tell you the secrets of life.”
I deposited a small wad in the bowl of my upturned palm like he said and closed my eyes. A pinprick of heat touched my hand with a sizzle, and when I looked he was withdrawing the joint from where he’d extinguished it.
“Thanks, Pal.” He tucked the roach behind his chanterelle ear, and then ducked from the hole and was gone.
“Are you serious?” Karen shuffled into the room, waving her hand in front of her face. “Getting high to start the day. Super. I’m sure you’ll be back on top again real soon.”
“I didn’t,” I said, embarrassed. Karen rifled through the fridge. I hunched down by the wall as she crossed back through the room behind me. When she got out of the shower I slipped in so I wouldn’t have to see her, but before she left she poked her head in the bathroom.
“Can you at least fix that hole today? Thank you.” She slammed the door and went to work.
I stepped out of the shower to my name being called. “Nick. Hello out there. Nick?” I wrapped myself in a towel and went into the living room where the fellow’s head stuck out of the hole. There were small black buttons over his eyes, connected by dental floss tied around his head. “It’s about time,” he said as I settled into the rocker across from him.
“What is that on your face?” I asked.
“It’s way too bright out there. We’re a bit nocturnal.”
“What’s your name?”
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “We have the same name, you and I, except I go by Nicholas.”
“How did you get my grocery list if it was in the trash? And how long have you been in there? What’s happening?” I had a lot of questions.
“Slow down, Boss,” he said. “Somebody wants to say hi.” He scurried back into the wall for a second before he reappeared. “Sorry,” he said. “She’s shy. Come on, sweet pea.” He whispered some words of encouragement into the wall as he pulled on her, and eventually, she peeked around the sheetrock. “Say hello to Karen,” his voice said from behind her.
She had a gray button over one eye and a Ritz cracker over the other. Her hair fanned down and tucked behind her little ears, like black curtains opening up her face. Even in the dark shadows I could see the pinkish blooms in her cheeks. “Hi there. Hello.” She adjusted her eyewear and said, “Thank you for the grass.”
Nicholas pushed her aside. “There’s just no way you can chalk this up to coincidence,” he said. “Am I right or am I right?” He said that he was able to get out from the hole to get into the kitchen to root through the garbage. He said they’d never been out before. What they wanted was to meet us. He did most of the talking. He said he believed I’d be happier if we opened up our minds to their existence with us. Nicholas had a way with words, and I have to confess that it all made a lot of sense. I mean, what were the chances of such coincidence? And the plan he hatched for it all to go smoothly was sound. He really had a way.
I hated spending money since I was no longer contributing to our bank account, so I picked through the children’s clothes section at the Goodwill. Nicholas said that ultimately, anything was better than rat fur. I knew the impression needed to be a good one. I went to the liquor store too and got what all he’d asked for. I was pretty sure that by the time Karen saw the bank statement, she’d no longer care about such trivial expenses.
I put the clothes through the hole when I got home, just like Nicholas asked me to do, along with a couple pre-rolls, a pack of Marlboro Reds, and some hard on pills from Chevron. I took a shower and shaved, changed into a nice shirt and jacket. I set the liquor out with mixers and got everything ready in the record room. I called Karen at work and asked her to meet me at the Mexican restaurant near our house for a drink.
She was silent for a spell. “I’d rather just come home.”
“Come on,” I said. “I have a surprise.”
“I won’t be surprised if you fixed the hole.”
“Trust me,” I said.
When she approached the table she got a big smile on her face. “You got a job,” she said, and plopped down beside me, threw her arms around my neck.
I hated to pop her bubble so I didn’t. I told her she had to be patient, that she wouldn’t guess it no matter how hard she tried. I told her she had to have an open mind and then she got annoyed. “Just one drink,” I said. It was the only way I could think to prepare her.
After paying the tab, I raced home and rang the doorbell, and then leaned on my truck. I almost puked when her headlights slid toward me.
“What in the hell?” she said as I gathered her arm and escorted her to the door. I took it slow, like walking an old cripple, except I basically held her back. “So What” by Miles Davis greeted us when I opened the door. I’d asked Nicholas to have that particular record playing since Karen always listens to it to relax. Her head darted every which way. It was dark in the house, but not so much that she couldn’t see the hole still there.
“Godammit,” she said.
“Shhh,” I said. “Nicholas,” I called out. “Are you there?”
“We’re here,” his helium voice answered from the back room.
Karen looked at me with an expression that captured every expression at once, and then I had to drag her forward, although I was moving slowly too. I was plenty nervous myself. I’d only seen them partially through the hole, in shadow, and only their faces and hands. Rounding the corner to the kitchen my testicles ascended. I tasted batteries.
We froze, held on to one another with mouths open. I heard the air go out of my wife as a whimper. Nicholas and Karen watched us right back in an identical posture. They were around three feet tall, clad in the clothes I’d gotten for them: a boy’s blue checkered flannel shirt tucked into Dockers that he’d cuffed, and a girl’s yellow dress for her, both of them looking like circus children who’d been dressed by conservative parents for a mall photo. When “Freddy Freeloader” came on we were all still just watching each other. Their little eyes were the same in the soft lighting, brown M&M’s with glints buried deep within like rain beads on thin winter branches. They wore no shoes and their feet were long and skinny, the same as rodents, minus toenails. Their skin seemed translucent, thin as crepes, with forked greenish veins running in berserk patterns underneath. Nicholas’ hair was slicked back, and just as black and wiry as his wife’s. Little Karen untucked hers from behind one ear and let it fall over the bud of her breast.
“I knew that you would be beautiful, Karen” Nicholas said to my wife.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Karen said. She turned on her heel and jogged to our bedroom.
“Just give me a minute,” I said, shaking a finger at our guests. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
I brushed the bathroom door with my hand to let Karen know I was there, that everything was OK. The water ran for a while and eventually the door opened. Karen was pale with her hands on each side of her face, fingers drawing down her eyes.
“What the fuck?” she said.
“I know, right?”
“I don’t understand,” she said. I told her what had happened, and it took me a good half hour to convince her to let them explain themselves. As I said, there was a draw toward them, almost like a magnet tugging at us. She let me guide her back where Nicholas and Karen sat on the loveseat, each with a drink, their slender toes just barely shy of the floor.
“I went ahead and made you a white Russian, Karen,” said Nicholas. “And a whiskey soda, Nick.” Our favorites. They were drinking the same, although they had to hold their glasses with both hands. “Please,” said Nicholas, nodding his head toward the sofa across from them. Karen and I sat down and gathered our drinks from the coffee table.
Nicholas laid on the charm, his blade-of-grass-blown voice like another horn flying over the cool sounds of Miles Davis. His wife leaned sweetly into him, nodding her head and blinking her cute eyes at us. He explained about their lives inside the walls of our house, how they knew everything about us. Nicholas said they understood the stresses involved in moving, the depression and anxieties, often drawing in my wife a nod of the head, or an, “Exactly.” When the record ended, he didn’t miss a beat in flipping it. When our drinks were low, he refreshed. They grew more attractive as the night stretched, and soon we were very drunk. At least Karen and I were. It seemed perfectly normal that we should be sitting there having such communion. But Nicholas was a smooth customer. He knew to bow out when the crowd was up.
“And so,” he finally said, easing himself off the loveseat, and Little Karen too. “We must bid you adieu. Buena sera for now, but we’d very much like to see you both again tomorrow night. Karen,” he said, crossing the rug and gathering my wife’s hand, which she’d already extended. “It was such an enormous pleasure meeting you and discovering that you’re even more beautiful than your honey voice suggested.” He kissed her hand, and then saluted me as he escorted Little Karen through the kitchen, back toward the hole.
My wife blushed in a way I’d forgotten she could and I thought her beautiful. We giggled and smiled as we heard them moving inside the wall.
“They’re such strange little”
“Shhh,” I said, putting a finger to my smile.
“They’re like me and you,” she whispered.
We held on to one another in the darkness of our bedroom, spinning from the booze. We took turns starting to say something and failing to finish the thought. At last, I managed, “He never said where they’re from or how they got there.”
“Who cares,” drawled Karen before we slipped into blackness.
When I awoke, sunlight streamed in on the lumps of us. I moaned and licked at the fuzz grown overnight in my mouth like moss. Karen moaned beside me. We dragged through showers and didn’t even bother clearing the bottles and glasses left in the kitchen. We moved through the house like cats introduced to a new home, disoriented and suspicious. Both of us ended up shoulder to shoulder in front of the hole, swaying in our PJ’s.
“Do you think maybe this house has lead paint?” Karen asked.
We were sprawled silent on the couch, each of us lost in the strangeness of the night when a thumping sounded from the wall, and Nicholas stuck his head out of the hole. He was wearing his button sunglasses.
“TGIS, sleepyheads!” he barked. “Karen and I request your presence tonight in your record room for a dance party.”
I looked over at Karen and saw that she was freaked out seeing him emerged from the hole like that. Her hands were in a prayer tent over her nose and mouth.
“I think we may need a night to recover,” I said, feeling a twinge of annoyance at his frightening Karen.
“Nonsense,” he said, pinching his bottom lip with those garlicky teeth. “What say you, beautiful?”
“OK,” said Karen.
Nicholas requested some more clothes. “Something we can stretch out in a bit,” he said. He also asked for more booze.
Karen and I rallied for a late afternoon trip to Target. She said she didn’t mind spending a little more on them. We wore sunglasses inside the store. I followed Karen as she navigated the children’s racks. She seemed to be enjoying herself, even though she repeated every five minutes how hungover she was. She’d pluck an item and hold it up to the light and giggle, or else press it to her and ask me what I thought. She dropped over a hundred bucks on the sort of clothes most boys have to be forced into for special occasions, although I did think some of the dresses were cute. We made the drop off as requested, set the assortment of alcohol up in the kitchen and went to our bedroom to get ready.
We emerged at six as planned, and found them waiting for us in the record room. Nicholas wore a tuxedo tee shirt tucked into sweatpants, and held out a glass with both hands to my wife, and then to me. It was the color of motor oil and smelled of licorice.
“Fernet and crème de menthe,” he said. “The cure.”
I grimaced at the thought of it and set the glass back on the counter.
“There,” he said, smiling up at Karen, who sipped at hers. “Somebody knows what’s good.”
“It’s actually not so bad,” she said, going in for a bigger nip.
“The boat’s sailing,” he sang to me. “Nothing to do on the dock all by your lonesome but feed moon pies to the gulls.”
“What?” I said.
Little Karen standing on a chair near the stereo in a pink sundress put the needle to a record. As it crackled my wife held her empty glass out and asked for another. Nicholas was right. It wasn’t hard at all to get right back into it.
After a few cures we broke into the rum. Karen got out the blender with little Karen on a chair beside her and they made banana daiquiris. Nicholas and I took turns spinning records and smoking cigarettes. I’d given it up a few months before, but figured what the hell. They sure looked funny in his mouth, but he sucked them right down. Nicholas explained how the gas station hard on pills were a lot like coke. He crushed them up and we all did a line or two off the Roger Daltry solo album, “Ride A Rock Horse.”
By midnight I was slow dancing with Little Karen, and my wife with Nicholas to a skipping Christopher Cross record. Little Karen’s head came up to just below my nipples. Her face pressed into me and I felt the steamy blasts from her tiny nostrils against my belly. And even with the faint sour milk smell that wafted from her, I found myself having to think about baseball. I guess it had been such a long time for Karen and me. I was trying to think of the last time we’d actually done it when Little Karen asked me to pick her up, which I did. She rested her bottom on my forearm like a child and wrapped her arms around my neck. She said she wanted to dance cheek to cheek, which I agree is the proper way to do it. She smiled at me and her teeth were just like her husband’s, brownish golden nubs that didn’t even seem to be solid. The veins beneath her skin flashed asparagus green as she smiled at me and slid her face against mine.
“I just want you to know,” she whispered into my ear in her soft balloon like way. “You can have me anytime,” she said. “You can do whatever you want to me.”
Even as fucked up as I was, I got flustered. I kept turning in circles. I pictured a cleaning lady high up on a ladder in Florence shaking a dusting wand at David’s marble penis. I couldn’t help but laugh then, although I immediately felt ashamed for having done so.
“It’s OK,” she whispered. “It is a funny thing to think about, isn’t it?”
I kept turning in the lamp lit room and when I looked up my wife was twirling Nicholas in exactly the same way with a big boozy grin plastered on her face. His chin rested on Karen’s shoulder and he was speaking into her ear, and just as our eyes swept one another’s, he flashed me his diced chompers.
I woke up hearing the same thundering thuds as I’d been dreaming about. The bedroom was dark except for the light in the bathroom. My wife hugged the toilet, almost as if she was shackled to it.
“Are you OK?” I called out.
“No,” she answered.
Boom. Boom. Boom. The house seemed to be shaking.
“Make it stop,” Karen moaned.
I stumbled out of our room and down the hallway, holding onto the walls like Samson. Boom. Boom. Boom. I followed the dim light to the record room where Nicholas sat perched on his wife’s shoulders hammering the corner of a sheet into the ceiling. He used the handle of a screwdriver as a hammer to whack the tacks. Little Karen swayed beneath him.
“Hey,” I said. “Cut it out.”
He pinched a thumbtack from his lips and readied it against the ceiling. “Just one more.” Boom. “There we go.” The sheet he’d tacked up obscured the window. Karen squatted down and Nicholas dismounted so that he was standing on the coffee table.
“What are you doing?” I asked. I glanced at the green digits on the stove. “It’s five thirty.”
“Hey, Nicky,” he said, waving the screwdriver. “Just because you guys pussed out doesn’t mean we have to.”
I was still quite drunk, confused. “Get out of here. Go to bed,” I said, turning back toward my own. I heard them snickering behind me as I stumbled through the darkness.
When I woke again our room glowed dim violet with day. I felt as if I was filled with wet sand, and was certain I was dying of thirst. Karen snored beside me.
I waddled down the hallway and into the still dark living room. I was thrown off by the lack of light until I saw the tin foil plastered over the windows. The kitchen was a mess. I yanked open the fridge and couldn’t spin the top off the orange juice quick enough. I upturned it and guzzled blindly, sucking at the nickel sized lip, rivulets of orange juice streaming down my chin. I slammed the empty carton down and gasped for air and that’s when I tasted the grainy bread flavor of vodka. My chest lit up like a lightning bug and I folded into a spout of dizziness, turning to clutch the kitchen sink. I heaved over the dirty dishes, waiting to be sick, and when the spinning subsided, and my breath returned, an incoming tide of drunkenness washed over me, and I was right back where I was the night before.
At first I was angry that they’d sabotaged the orange juice. I stumbled through the banana peels and empty bottles searching for their possum-like appendages sticking out from under bits of clothes or blankets, but then it struck me as funny that they should turn such a trick and then hole up. “Little Brer Rabbits,” I said and rapped the wall with my knuckles.
I fixed a couple of Nicholas’ cures and brought one to Karen, who was moaning under the bedspread.
“Are you fucking crazy?” she said.
“Well, it works,” I said. “I thought it might help make you less miserable.”
“Get it away,” she said. Karen gulped, and then lurched back to the bathroom. “I have a huge project at work this week,” she said between dry heaves. “Get it out!” She picked up a hair brush from the sink and flung it at me. I retreated back to the dark record room and sank both drinks, and it wasn’t long before I crouched before the hole. “Hey,” I said. “You have a smoke?” Nicholas crawled on out, Little Karen right behind him. They wore the same clothes as they’d had on the night before.
“These are my last two,” he said, shaking them out.
We hung out in the record room and smoked while Little Karen made us a round of Bloody Marys. “We need more vodka too,” she said, handing them to us. Nicholas dumped out the last hard on pill, crushed it up and shaped it into three white lines. “When it rains, it pours,” he said.
We sat around the kitchen table cutting holes in two black Hefty bags. Nicholas and Karen had never been outside and they wanted to see what the world looked like. We had to consider what the sunlight might do to their sensitive skin. Their sleeved arms poked out of holes in the sides of the bag, and another slit was made for their faces. I found some mittens for them to wear, and some long winter socks for their feet. After strapping on their eyewear, we were ready.
“Lookout world,” Nicholas said, as they followed me out the door to my truck.
Karen sat in the middle, and Nicholas was like a dog, sniffing at the crack in the window. I drove to the Chevron at the entrance to our neighborhood, and when I went inside I realized I was still wearing my purple and gold plaid pajamas. I turned toward Nicholas and Karen before entering the store and pinched the fabric from my thighs as if in a curtsy, and I could see the bags in the cab shaking with laughter. After getting new supplies, I steered toward home, but Nicholas suggested we drive around a while, which sounded like a fine idea to me. I passed us each a beer and a smoke and turned out toward the highway.
It was a perfect day for a Sunday drive. Most folks in town were in church, and we had the road to ourselves. The weather bordered on snow, everything was still and grey. Karen played with the knob on the radio until she found a choice radio program called, “Beatles Brunch” and cranked it up. She scooted right up against me and we sang along to “Ticket to Ride”.
“Let’s see what this baby can do,” Nicholas said. “And no pussy-footing!”
“No pussy-footing!” shouted Karen. She’d removed her mitten and pressed her little fingers inside my thigh.
I turned down a two-lane blacktop country road and stepped on it. John Lennon sang Help through the speakers and the cows in the fields flew by. Nicholas smashed his bottle into a mailbox and howled, “Direct hit!” By this point, Karen had charmed me out of my pajama hole and when I glanced nervously at Nicholas, he clucked his tongue at me and whistled. “Don’t let up!” he screamed, and I didn’t. Tiny flecks of snow appeared as Karen bent to me, and I raced into it, almost as if the landscape before me was a painted canvas, and that if I met it fast enough, we would rip through the day, tearing born again into another one where anything was possible.
As the shivers came upon me and I sizzled to flare, Nicholas reached over and grabbed the steering wheel, helped keep it between the lines. Coming to, with not much time to react, a gravel truck sped toward the intersection I was approaching. I cut the wheel and brought us fishtailing into an abandoned do-it-yourself car wash. I narrowly avoided smashing through the aluminum stalls, and steered us screeching past the pay station into an overgrown field, where I slowed a great deal, thanks to a concrete post obscured by tall grass. It raked the entire passenger side of my truck and when I flipped around, Karen and Nicholas were both on the floorboard. My forehead throbbed. When I brought the truck back through the parking lot and to the road, the man in the gravel truck sat watching. I waved at him, and he shook his head and continued on through the intersection.
Back at home, the passenger door of my truck wouldn’t open and I had to let Nicholas and Karen out through the driver’s side. There was a three-inch canal bored along the entire side of my truck, painted yellow from the concrete stopper. I couldn’t get inside fast enough, as if somebody, somewhere, had reported me, and the police might swoop in any second to arrest me. Looking at the clock, we hadn’t even been gone an hour. I made some tater tots and brought them to Karen with a glass of water and some Advil. She was conked out, a half empty bottle of Nyquil on the nightstand beside her. I left it in there for her and then went back out to the record room and drank the rest of the beer.
Nicholas and Karen kept me company, and at one point we heard my wife moving around in the bedroom. We all tensed up listening to her plod to the bathroom, but after the toilet flushed, she went right back to bed. Nicholas nudged Karen and they said they had to be going. As they slid off the loveseat and passed me by, Little Karen brushed my elbow, and Nicholas called out, “Buenos Dias.”
Karen woke me in the morning, slapping my cheeks. I was on the couch in the living room. “Nick,” she said. “What happened to your head?” There was a panicked look in her eyes, just like the lady in the Chagall painting, and when I put my hand to my forehead I recoiled, drawing between my teeth a great hissing of air. “Pathetic,” Karen said, pointing to the covered windows.
I fumbled, said the first thing that hatched, which was, “I fell in the shower.”
Karen was dressed for work, climbing on the cushions of the couch to pinch down the tin foil. She snatched at it and crumpled it, flung it toward the kitchen like silver balls of fire. “This is pitiful!” she cried. She looked in on the kitchen toward the record room. “I have to go to work. I have a career, a life. I can’t do this. You can’t do this.” Passing me by on her way to the door she told me to pull myself together.
I listened to her heels clod down the driveway, and wanted to die. The car door slammed, and after about a minute, it opened and shut again, and she came walking back to the house.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Nick! What did you do?” She gathered my shirt in her fist. “Look at me,” she said. “Where did you go? What happened to your truck? Did you hurt somebody?”
Recollections came swimming from the dark corners of me, clumping together haphazard on the half-ass magnet of my mind. Karen wanted an answer. I stammered and stuttered and told her that I misjudged the contours of the carwash at Chevron. I assured her that there were no casualties, but she didn’t wait for me to finish.
“I’m not living this way,” she said, whisking past me down the hallway and into the guest room. “Come help me,” she yelled from in there. She squatted beside the chest of drawers where we kept out of season clothes. It was an antique from her mother, a towering oaken beast of a thing, and I helped her remove the drawers from it. “Get the other end,” she told me. We scooted it down the hallway, and through the living room until we’d backed it up against the wall so that it covered the hole. After rejoining the drawers to it, Karen turned wordless and went to work.
The knot on my forehead was the size of a golf ball, bulging from a bruise the electric green color of tornado skies. Ruptured blood vessels blossomed eggplant across my cheeks and nose. I turned from the mirror and spent the next few hours cleaning the house, erasing any sign of Nicholas and Karen. Once everything was put away, I drove to the Home Depot and bought a drywall repair kit. I placed it on top of the chest of drawers, my sign of intention for Karen to see when she got home.
Karen was pleased with the house, and to see that I seemed dedicated to getting myself on track. We discussed plans and goals and agreed to stroll healthier avenues. We decided not to close up the hole just yet, and that as clunky as the chest of drawers appeared in the living room, it would suffice for the time being. “One thing at a time,” Karen said.
It took me three days to recover. I sweated anxiety and toxins like onion gook, and it sheened my skin and kept me up at night. In my fever dreams I was chased by Chagall’s fellow all over the house. The walls pounded like an army of Nicholases and Karens wanting out. But by the end of the week, my forehead had healed, mostly, and I was back in the swing of things: taking long walks, looking for jobs, feeling my way forward. On the weekends, Karen and I took hikes and watched movies. We drank lemon-flavored sparkling water by the case, and experimented with exotic cuisine.
After about two weeks we started reminiscing about Nicholas and Karen. I told about what Little Karen mentioned while we were dancing, although I kept the Sunday drive to myself. Karen laughed and said she thought it was sort of cute, and confessed that while she danced with Nicholas, he’d bragged about being a sexual wizard. He told her he wanted to eat her like French dip au jus, and that he could make her come seven different ways from Sunday.
“He said that?” I laughed. “No way.”
“Maybe it was eight,” Karen blushed.
It was a holiday weekend and there was nothing left to watch. We were bored with being good and it was Saturday night.
“Do you think they’re still there?” Karen asked.
“I haven’t heard anything,” I said. “Do you want me to check?”
“Maybe just to see if they’re OK in there,” she said.
We got on either end of the chest of drawers and worked it away from the wall. “Hello,” I said into the hole. “Yoo Hoo?” Karen called.
A rolling scuttle scraped along the molding. Karen and I backed up to give them room. “Hidy, strangers,” Nicholas said, peeking out.
“Hello,” I said. “How’s things?”
Nicholas leaned on the lip of exposed sheetrock like a neighbor saying hello over a fence on the first day of spring. “Can’t complain,” he said. “You?”
“How’s little Karen?” my wife asked. “We missed you.”
Little Karen poked her head from behind Nicholas’ shoulder. “Hi, Karen,” she said. “Hi Nick.”
“We thought we’d done something to offend you,” said Nicholas. “We thought you hated us,” said Little Karen, her chin resting against her husband’s neck.
“Heavens no,” said Karen.
“Get the hell outta there,” I said, extending my hand.
Two days later, had the sunrise been able to penetrate the bed sheets and cardboard we’d tacked up, it would have found us sitting around the coffee table deeply engaged in a game of truth or dare. It started out simple enough. Nicholas and Little Karen never once picked truth, and the dares evolved from flashing body parts to Nicholas licking my wife’s armpit, which I sure hated to see. The questions got more personal, more pointed until it became Truth or Truth, with Karen and I using our guests as a hinge on which to swing a door into the other’s face. Karen confessed to unwrapping tampons and leaving them strewn in the bathroom as a ruse to discourage me from trying anything, which inspired me to tell how much I hated our new town, and that I was considering packing my shit and going back home solo. We were just about at each other’s throats when we were separated, and my wife and Little Karen convened back in our bedroom behind a slamming door that made the Bowie record we listened to skip a song.
“In vino veritas,” Nicholas said, and prepared a couple lines for me. “Relax,” he said, lighting my cigarette. “My wife knows exactly what to say to her.”
“I wasn’t lying,” I said. “I fucking hate it here.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said. “This place sucks.”
‘Fuck you too,” I said, flicking my ash at him. “You’re the asshole who started it, asking her those questions, prodding her. I know the things you told her.”
Nicholas sat back and mock applauded. “Bravo, Nicky,” he said. “You’ve got a beautiful temper, man. Seriously. Good things are borne from it. Hell, if it wasn’t for your failure to communicate, we never would have met. Listen,” he said, lifting the nearly empty bottle of vodka and pouring us two shots. “You should hit her or something. Why do you think my wife’s such a peach?” He knocked back his vodka. “A dress sock full of marbles, that’s how.”
“Shoe,” I said, and threw my vodka in his face. “Get the fuck out of here!” I tumbled from the couch and tried to get my hands around his throat, but he darted to the other side of the coffee table. He leaned on it and grinned at my compromised motor skills.
“You dumb hick,” he laughed. “Trying to lick the one thing that’s given you some measure of joy in a bleak joyless existence. This is fate, motherfucker! And don’t you forget it.” He mopped his face with a hand and licked his palm. “I mean, you’re the one who broke down the wall! You let us in for Christ’s sake!”
I lunged at him again, and managed to get some purchase. I worked myself up and knocked down the hallway to the bedroom, Nicholas tucked under my arm like a stubborn chicken, thrashing and kicking. I shouldered the door open and my wife was sitting on the edge of the bed, bare chested. Little Karen stood on the mattress behind her, braiding her hair. “Hubba,” said Nicholas under my grip.
“You too,” I said, and snatched Little Karen under my other nook. I marched back down the hall and stuffed them both squirming into the hole. I left scrapes across the floor pushing the chest of drawers back into place to seal them in. Karen stood in the hallway and watched me with sad tired eyes, but not protesting.
I’d like to tell that I ripped open the drywall repair kit and got to work, and that Karen and I sat together side by side against the wall across from it and watched the new coat of crimson paint dry, but it’s not the case.
We’d make it a week, sometimes two, but as soon as the sun came out and we started feeling better, we’d celebrate by scooching the chest of drawers from the wall. And they would always be right there waiting for us, sometimes with gifts, things they foraged and crafted inside the dank walls during down time: rat fur slippers, rubber tubing carved into our likeness, and once, a toe ring for Karen, fashioned from copper wires and insulation. We played Twister, Apples to Apples, or Apples to Assholes, as we called it, and Seven Minutes in Heaven. We consumed copious amounts of booze and drugs and cigarettes, and I chased Nicholas around the coffee table. More often than not, the weekends ended with me or Karen cramming them back into the wall and sealing them off, for good this time, we’d say, wiping our hands clean of invisible gunk.
And so it went, until by the following winter we’d sealed the windows so they could roam freely. They’d grown as well, not quite as big as us, but not so far off. They took on a healthier sheen, and it was Karen and I who’d grown gaunt, gazing lost and yellow from shadowed sockets. Nicholas and Little Karen learned how to shrink our clothes by using the hot cycles, rewashing and drying on high heat until it was a close enough fit, which was a practical move considering we were running on fumes as far as our bank account was concerned, and could no longer afford trips to Target. We had our priorities. Sometimes, honestly, it was hard to tell just who was who, all of us lounging around in the same clothes. When Karen got passed over for a promotion she quit trying so much. Little Karen often called in sick for my wife, her voice leaving no doubt as to the legitimacy of whatever ailment was offered. I never did find a job.
There was no pomp when I repaired the hole, no dramatic moment in which Karen and I held hands and watched the gateway vanish forever behind drying crimson paint. I fixed it because we were moving and we wanted our deposit back. I did it at the last moment while Karen filled a U-Haul with boxes, and my patchwork was amateur at best. It was obvious that we’d tried to cover something up and we only ever got a fraction of our money back. I’m no handyman.
But there was a feeling in the air as we passed one another cradling boxes, something we dared not give voice to, a vague suspicion we harbored, stopping for a moment when we brushed in the hallway to search each other’s eyes like TSA agents to make sure we had the proper traveling companion, our fingers locking grateful, satisfied before moving on.
We didn’t go back home, which is what I’d wanted for so long. In fact, we floated even further away. Karen got a transfer to a small town on the coast, and she wants to make a go of it here. I got a part time job at a bookstore, a pleasant gig, which adds a little cushion. It’s only about a two-mile hike down a bluff to the ocean from our front door, a walk I take every morning, rain or shine, but mostly the former. There’s a small jazz club a short walk away, and a decent restaurant in the neighborhood with happy hour oysters seven days a week. The house is smaller, too, and after a year we have the option to buy. The Chagall hangs in the dining room and I look at it every night while we eat. I see the acrobatic lovers more than I used to, but the ghost is there too, still shocking his woman. It all depends on the day I’m having.
I’ve caught Karen with her ear pressed to the wall on more than one occasion and I’m guilty of the same. I’ve canvassed our home, softly rapping my knuckles on the paint to locate hollow spots. Because our house sits atop a bluff, it really takes a beating with the storms that barrel in. We keep as busy as we can, and on weekends, when there’s nothing much to do, and we can’t possibly stand to be with ourselves another second, the gales roll in and lash at the house. The foundation strains against the weather, and the wood speaks in tongues all around us so that the walls swell and quake like a thousand tiny hands wanting out. We tell ourselves that if we just stay still long enough it will pass. We sit and listen, and wait.