The Walls Have Mouths
by Charles C. Cole
While stationed in Colorado Springs, I lived alone in a stylish duplex. The place had large windows, wood floors, built-in bookcases — and history. The prior tenant, a catty 80-something former art teacher, insisted my cozy residence had been half of a fancy 1930s bungalow, later unceremoniously walled down the middle during a front-page divorce.
While my girlfriend volunteered overseas with a Peace Corps alternative, I held down the fort. I was mindfully “coupled” and stoically antisocial, but not far off the beaten path. I could quickly walk to the movie theater or Memorial Park.
Next-door was this engaged couple, late 20s, months from getting married. We passed each other on the stoop, respectful but not friendly. I think my work clothes, an Air Force uniform, gave them pause.
They’d received special permission from the landlord to wallpaper their living room (personalize their apartment into a home). It wasn’t going well. One too many items on the to-do list. I’d heard wedding planning sometimes exacerbated underlying tensions, but there were no particular red flags when, early one night, I was startled awake by a terrifying fight.
Kyrie, my female neighbor who was not an inch over five feet, screamed out, “Help! Call the police! He’s hurting me!”
I was confused and half-asleep. For a split second I thought the couple was performing an S&M role-playing game just to embarrass me.
Then someone turned up the stereo, probably to hide the strident domestic disturbance. I was the only person Kyrie could have been addressing. Since she’d solicited my neighborly assistance, I immediately called 911. Maybe I should have banged on the wall or, at least, done some preliminary investigation, but her man Zander was twice the man I was. My girlfriend said I resembled a POW. Also, at the time, I was nursing ten new stitches on my lower left leg from a stupid incident with an overturned grocery cart.
When the police arrived, I quickly put on my headset and tuned out the excitement. I’d done my duty and, consequently, was as embarrassed as a flatulent man on a crowded transatlantic plane.
I didn’t know the legal results, though I can confirm Zander was not taken into custody. Nobody was seriously hurt, clearly, but my neighbors never spoke to me again. During the following weeks, for all of us, the wall could not have been thick enough. The “happy” couple moved out shortly, and I never heard about them again.
A Colorado College student, Bessie, moved in. Bessie had a steady girlfriend who visited often, usually around dinner, not that I was monitoring the situation. The only sounds regularly drifting through the wall were meditational new-age music, experimental bongo tapping and, occasionally, loud explosions of “sarcastic” laughter.
I got along with Bessie better than any of my four siblings, maybe because we never pretended to have anything in common. Bessie was crunchy and exotic, while I was stale white-bread and square. I was a convenient “bouncer” when mice or centipedes made pests of themselves, and Bessie was a perk to my ego: a beautiful woman willing to accompany me to the Waffle House, while remaining a non-temptation.
One rainy afternoon as I was washing dishes, Bessie smacked on the wall for my attention. “You decent, airman?” she called.
“No, but you can come over anyway,” I responded.
Bessie, in a bright orange tube top that could stop traffic and snug black denim overalls, coughed dramatically from beyond the screen door and made her entrance. Her chin and eyebrows were held high like a Catholic school nun who knew everybody was hiding something and she’d be the one to find it. She threw open my floor-length curtains with the flourish of an impatient family butler and then peered carefully into the crawlspace behind my Goodwill sofa.
“You lose something?” I asked.
“I’m here for telltale clues as to what kind of bacchanalian brawl you had last night and how you cleaned up so thoroughly. Don’t worry: I won’t tell your girlfriend.”
At the time I was stationed in Cheyenne Mountain, supporting NORAD, and I was working the night shift. I was a humble underground weather specialist without a window, who mostly watched reruns of 1970s sitcoms between reporting cycles.
“I was at work,” I explained. “It wasn’t me.”
“There was screaming and yelling.”
“Cats in heat?”
“A passionate argument between a man and a woman, with loud music. Allman Brothers maybe.” She looked around. “I expected holes in the wall.”
“Sorry to disappoint. It sounds like you’re describing the couple who moved out.”
“Were they visiting?” she asked.
“Not likely,” I said. “What were you doing over there to attract old energies? I come from very superstitious New England stock.”
“We were trying to peel this ugly-ass wallpaper. We’d barely started.”
“That would do it,” I said. I explained. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the residue of their last fight is probably trapped under the wallpaper, which is why you thought the screaming was coming from over here. Leave it be.”
Bessie responded with the most profane language I’d ever heard, vividly colorful and self-deprecating.
“So the damn place is haunted?” she finally asked.
“Mildly cursed, so it seems.”
“Straight men ruin everything!” she exclaimed. “I hate that wallpaper.”
“You might try burning sage or painting over it.”
“I have to move,” she concluded.
“Stay. You’re cool. You’re tougher than lingering male toxicity.”
“My dad would shake the windows when he yelled. I can take the mice and the centipedes, but not my dad moving in with me.”
She tried burning sage but was too freaked out to stay, even though she never heard the fighting again.
The next person to move in, an Army sergeant from Ft. Carson, left the wall undisturbed. His uniforms were always crisp and, when we passed on the stoop, I felt like at last I was living next to someone from the same fraternity.
And that was how I lost the best non-roommate, non-girlfriend I ever knew.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole