Walls. Singing Bushes.
by Robert Pettus
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If walls could talk, maybe they could have alerted someone as Alex lay sprawled out convulsing on the carpet spewing saliva across his face as his eyes rolled back into the black depths of his poisoned skull. If walls could talk perhaps he would’ve been saved from flopping around percussively—his arms striking the carpet like heavy drum sticks to a pair of tom-toms—and gasping for air like a blankly staring, shored crappie. The mop-haired carpet could have been saved from soaking up the sudsy vomit overflowing from his gurgling mouth.
A court-ordered stay at the sober-living house couldn’t save Alex. Nothing could truly save Alex because there were two opposing things from which he needed saving. Drugs and alcohol saved him from having to deal with the horror of life; drugs and alcohol, killed him.
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
A plastic baggie of leftover smack was smushed in the back pocket of Alex’s jeans under the weight of his bouncing ass. That shit couldn't save him, either. He kept flailing around until he finally stopped for good.
The sober-living house didn’t seem to help many of its residents, the walls probably thought. The bushes lining the house hid within their bulbous canopies an ever-growing pile of booze bottles; the most popular choices: 40oz. Budweisers and pints of Wild Turkey. Those bottles lay there, under the bushes, clinking together like chimes on windy nights when the weather shook the foliage. The tossed bottles lay there until one of the residents, desperate for a little cash, would collect them—anxiety and mental anguish building as they gathered into a large trash bag each of those chiming bottles—to haul them off to be recycled, hoping not to be seen by the landlord, a cop, or their sponsor.
If walls could talk, they could have communicated to the subsequent resident of Alex's former home, when they found hidden in the back of that deep closet, cold as the grave, a child’s water-color painting that said ‘To Dad, Happy Father’s Day.’ The walls could have, maybe, explained that the artwork wasn’t left there by an apathetic father moving out of the house. Alex wasn’t apathetic in a paternal sense; he cared—he was anguished at the reality of his shitty parenthood. No, he wasn’t apathetic. He was merely an uncontrollable junkie who had managed to get himself killed before making it out of the sober-living house. The walls could have explained that Alex didn’t want to leave his kids painting at the house, he had just fucked up. Again. This time for the last time.
If the walls in that small rectangular bedroom could talk they could have explained that it wasn’t a piss stain dripping down the side of the wall, it was a dark yellow candle that had overflowed—much like Alex’s vomiting mouth—after he had passed out and then perished.
That candle had burned for hours, the smoky aroma of Birchwood Beach fusing with the growing scent of bodily fluids and death. The Kentucky spring breeze blowing in through the open window couldn’t mask it; that stench would eventually fill the rest of the house, after which Alex’s roommates would come and find him lying lifeless, staring upward at them with the vacant eyes and opened mouth of an expired toad.
They would cry, not entirely unselfishly. They would know that Alex could have been them; they would know that they, too, could soon be dead.
In the back of their minds they may have even felt angry at Alex. They might have been planning to get buzzed later that evening, loading up a pipe or sniffing a pill or throwing an emptied bottle of Turkey into the bush. They wouldn’t be able to do that now, not without further regret and self-loathing, at least.
The hangover would now be worse.
If walls could talk the new resident (the owner of the sober-living house had decided during the pandemic that the place was unprofitable and sold it) the new resident would have known as he painted coat after coat of foamy satin white over the candle wax stains and ripped up the carpet that this was a room that had seen pain. The walls could have explained as he assembled the crib that decisions are important and loneliness can be deadly.
If walls could talk they could have alerted that subsequent homeowner, called Oscar, of the reason for the new baby’s continued crying. Those walls could have told Oscar, a first-time parent, that the baby wasn’t being unreasonably noisy. The baby wasn’t simply reacting to a new experience. The window—that one in the bedroom above the singing bushes—was blowing in with its breeze the specter of a lost father. A spirit with a clear job to do though no way of doing it.
The baby wailed and shook the brittle old crib, one likely too old to again reuse, but one Oscar had gotten recycled because it was all he could afford. Oscar would enter Alex’s former bedroom and comfort his newborn, his head throbbing as he remembered the bottle he had thrown in the bush earlier that afternoon. He had heard a soft clink as the bottle landed, but he didn’t look at why. He hadn’t noticed the entirety of the collection.
If walls could talk they could have told Oscar. Or the baby, if it could talk, could have explained that it wasn’t the wind; it wasn’t the child being unreasonable—it was Alex darting around the room, bouncing off the newly painted walls and screaming through the restlessness of an unquiet grave.
If walls could talk, they could have told Oscar that Alex was aware of the painting in the closet; he knew it was still there. He simply couldn’t tell Oscar about it. He couldn’t explain his situation. The baby noticed him, but he couldn’t explain to the baby, and the baby couldn’t yet talk anyway.
Alex had no way of lifting the painting. He had no method of delivering it to his son. His son, who gazed out his own window every evening, inhaling the crisp breeze, fragrant of both earth and fuel—both nature and construction—his son wondering where his dead father might now be, if anywhere.
If walls could talk they could have told Oscar what to do with that painting when he finally found it deep in that cold closet. Walls can’t talk, though, so Oscar, shaking his head at the neglect of some parents, threw the painting in the trash.
The painting featured a family holding hands, a house, and a sun. Several bushes surrounded the house.
Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. His short stories have been published in numerous webzines, magazines, podcasts, and literary journals, including previously on Kaidankai (The Shrine and as part of the Unpleasantville series). His first novel, titled Abry, was published this spring by Offbeat Reads and is scheduled for republication this March with Flick-It books. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, Mary, his daughter, Rowan, and his pet rabbit, Achilles.
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