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If walls could talk

On Mondays, so that her husband will walk the beloved standard poodle, Clara feigns sleep. The husband really is sleeping when the morning light ricochets off the bricks outside their bedroom window, striking the end of the bed somewhere around their ankles. Clara knows he’s asleep because she is always awake when he is unconscious and the converse is mostly true. Moreover, her body clock is set to IST, International Sunrise Time, as she considers herself the Watch Guard of the Morning no matter where she and her spouse happen to be in the world. Many a giddy married year they spent at playing world travelers. Lately, though, they are almost always in the same place, which is their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City, New York, The United States of America, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy. At least Clara is. In the apartment. He, her husband — who she still calls Mick-man even though everyone else calls him Michael or Mr. Dana — travels. His travel schedule is unpredictable, but its frequency is not. Clara has grown accustomed to his last-minute changes and has accordingly adopted a life of suspended animation — a reactionary life, always attuned to the vagaries of her husband’s exigencies.

On Mondays, once dawn’s niggling fingers have slipped under the blinds and are stroking his face, Mick-man snorts himself awake. This is one of the defined moments of their couple-dom, as regular as the lack of physical affection. Clara wonders if his snort is triggered by light that has snaked up his nostrils and now pokes at his brain. Since this is the image she has every Monday awakening she believes it to be the case. The Mick-man was once a sinusitis sufferer, but his miseries were alleviated when an excavation of his passages was performed courtesy of enlightened preventive health care. Clara could use the films Mick-man had framed for his office to confirm in court that there is little matter filling that region of his inter-cranial space.

His reveille snort signals her to close tight her eyes to assume the deep sleep position. Clara and Michael Dana have played this scene for twenty-five years. Clara maintains that he knows she is awake — (Surely he must know this if he thinks of her at all in the early morning as they lie beside each other purposefully not touching but still radiating heat through barriers of clutched pillows.) Sometimes the heat of him awakens an old yearning somewhere between her legs, but she believes the Mick-man wouldn’t go for that. He’s one cold bastard for all the warmth his body produces, she thinks whenever desire surprises her. She wonders if anyone benefits from that warmth. She blames it on his Italian heritage, even though he speaks no Italian and looks Irish. Mick-man.

Mick-man never feels the cold, that is, the temperature cold, and for that she envies him. She doesn’t envy anything else. Clara would be ashamed, however, for anyone to think she’s ungrateful for her marriage so she has become a vocal enthusiast regarding her husband’s reputation to anyone in doubt. “It’s a mystery to me, but everyone who knows him admires Michael Dana. Everybody.” Indeed, her words are true. Everyone thinks him Swell: compassionate, wryly amusing. BIG HEARTED. In reality, what can she think but, It must be the Michael in him. Sometimes Clara fantasizes that she is married to Michael Dana but it is always the Mick-man who walks in the door.

She squeezes her eyes tight so that they don’t open by mistake and expose her for the fraud she is. She doesn’t need eyes to know that Mick-man is leaning over to retrieve the book and reading glasses that fell to the rug the night before. She can sense his movements by the shift of the mattress, one of the most expensive items she and Mick-man have ever purchased. By the expiry day of its warranty it was thoroughly mashed and sagging and as sensitive as a waterbed to the slightest movement of any one occupant thereby guaranteeing a lousy night’s sleep.

Mick-man retrieves his glasses and book from the floor before arising because his mother taught him to do so. Everything his mother taught him prior to his being sent to prep school he still does and his constancy fills him with pride. Soon, as per his mother’s tutelage, he will gallop into the eastward-facing rooms to lower the shades. Clara is impressed and annoyed that he does this rain or shine, sunny or cloudy. If he doesn’t lower the shades the minute he leaves the bedroom wing he grows agitated and castigates himself in a voice unlike his own for not having lowered the shades. Given that the ritual itself causes Mick-man stress, Clara thinks it would be petty of her to remind him that they’d bought the apartment expressly to enjoy the patterns of morning light etching against their homely objects. The sharp shadows shooting across the long expanses of wood mark a spot of warmth in her personal universe, but she doesn’t mention this to Mick-man. She understands that Mick-man treasures his habits.

She supposes that she is one of them, although the question of his faithfulness to her has long been academic. The man is so physically austere, so contained within his personal vise, that she cannot imagine him capable of reaching beyond it to embrace anyone else. Being no fool, she considered that the reason she saw him this way was that he gives all he has to others while retaining her as his solace, the refilling station where no effort is required but to receive. From what little experience Clara has had, however, she believes that when a person has an affair of either the heart or loins, the joy and abandon of it tends to leak out into all other circumstances; to wit, it becomes obvious that there is ecstasy going around. The one time she dared to pleasure herself with another man — if a person of male gender 20 years her junior could be called that — Mick-man had been on a two-month sabbatical to Dubai. Both her giddiness and her young man had evaporated by the time he returned, leaving her ecstasy theory untested. Clara admits that it could be wrong. Lately she feels wrong about many things.  As for the shades, as soon Mick-man leaves for work she will re-open them for a few minutes…before they can do permanent damage to the historic lithographs.

By now Mick-man has pushed himself up to standing (with both hands for maximum rocking of aforementioned mattress). He stands naked by the bed and noisily sucks in deep draughts of fresh air. Mick-man sleeps naked. Clara likes knowing this even though she wonders what about his body turned her on in the beginning. Wonderment aside, there is comfort in knowing a thing so well. Recognizing which parts have not changed versus those that now droop, are grizzled, or absent. The tattoo remains in its original glory and she finds this curious. The right buttock on which the tattoo was penned forty years ago remains taut and smooth. She doesn’t need a tape measure to know this because the parrot’s crimson feathers are still sharp-edged and the olive branch it holds (unparrot-like) in its claw still clearly bears the name “Corinne.”

Some women, some wives, would be threatened to find the name of another female permanently riding their husband’s buttock. Clara does not. It was one of the reasons she chose Mick-man. The first time she saw the bird she assumed it was a sign of the two things she wanted in a partner: Daring and tenderness. It was not until later in her marriage that she learned that getting the tattoo was the only daring act Mick-man would ever undertake — and this he had done in order to convince the girlfriend before her that he was a daring kinda guy. Clara smiled to remember that Mick-man’s one act of bravado was to trick someone else into thinking he was brave and that she was the one who fell for it. What does this say about me? she often asks herself.

The fact remains that the tattoo speaks decades of truth about the tenderness that lurks somewhere, unexpressed, deep within His Frigidness. Corinne was the beloved family macaw who dropped dead from the cold on the day the family relocated to New Haven from Costa Rica. Mick-man still mourns the bird. Clara reckons she is a poor substitute for the colorful avian although she has been a good stand-in for the rejecting girlfriend.

She hears him step into his crackling running pants in the less-dark room. It is a mystery to Clara that his running pants should crackle. They’re not starched; maybe the rubber has given out since they must be thirty years old. Older. The name of his prep school is partially visible on the side: hoat. Of course he can afford new pants. Why does he not buy them? Is it because running pants cost twenty times more than they did during the 1970s? Is it because he likes the scratchy texture against his skin? A remnant of sensation? Maybe he has no time, in which case Clara would happily schedule an outing to buy them for him. But he doesn’t ask.

He leaves the room to attack the shades and it is safe for her to stretch and open her eyes. The dog mimics Clara, stretching and blinking. She is a good poodle and loves Clara most of all. Mick-man resents her this preference. He doesn’t like it when people adore Clara either. How does she know this? It is something she surmises because he never praises her or rushes to introduce her to colleagues.

She goes back into I’m sleeping mode when she hears him shuffle down the hall to fetch the dog until she hears the click of the brass clasp onto her collar. Once again Mick-man is heroically letting her sleep, which is her cue to yawn loudly and say, “That’s so nice of you. I would have done it if you had asked.” And it’s true. She likes walking the dog, especially first thing in the morning. But Clara also likes testing her belief that Mick-man prefers not having to ask versus being relieved of the morning duty. She believes that dutiful behavior reinforces Mick-man’s feelings of accomplishment and that is a good thing.

He leaves and she pulls on the green dressing gown that lives at the foot of the bed. The sunlight is hitting the room at a different angle now that it is practically spring. She can see her reflection in the mirror where previously there was only glare. Clara loves their bedroom. She covered the walls in green vine paper that is uplifting and serene and cheerful all at once without being busy. As she gazes at her image she realizes for the first time that the pattern in her robe is reminiscent of the pattern in the wallpaper. This is an odd coincidence. Odd in that it should be so and odd that she hadn’t noticed it before. They make a pretty assemblage, the wallpaper and her gown, but she herself looks a little strange. Well, her head does. She considers that this might be what she would look like if she were only a head. Disembodied. Or sealed up in the wallpaper, Cask of Amontillado-like.

Clara is still standing in front of the mirror entranced by her disembodied head against the wall paper when Mick-man and the poodle return. She hears the dog’s toenails click on the bare floors. The dog runs from room to room searching because Clara should be in the kitchen by now preparing her breakfast. Mick-man walks into the bedroom and heads directly for his closet to pick out a shirt and pants. Clara says not a word and neither does he. Does he see her standing there? It occurs to her that maybe she is no longer standing there and has gone into another room without noticing. She goes to the kitchen in search of the poodle and herself. The dog is sitting on her haunches with her smarmy dog smile plastered on her chops, waiting for Clara. She looks meaningfully into Clara’s eyes and Clara is reassured by the dog’s lack of concern.

The rest of the morning proceeds in normal fashion: Mick-man stalks into the kitchen. Is there tea? Slurps. Reads the paper. Shoves work gadgets into backpack. I’ll call whether I’ll be home in time for dinner. (He won’t. Call or get there in time.) Chair scrapes in front hall as he places shoe trees in Sunday’s shoes and selects Monday’s pair. Door opens. Shuts. Clara has said not a word — except for her usual colloquy with the poodle: Didda have good walkies? Didda wanta cookie? Here’s breakie. Didda wanta milkie? She wonders if it’s necessary to remind friends that she and Mick-man raised two articulate and breezy children, who are now successful and happy adults, without once lapsing into baby-talk. Clara appreciates that since the poodle’s IQ is close to hers the dog must be making an effort to tolerate her babble pertaining to the daily food exchange. Clara concludes that she must be an old canine soul. Or perhaps she pities Clara.

The rest of the morning proceeds as usual — laundry, kitchen, grocery ordering (online), family check-ins (online), bills paying (online) — and getting dressed for Mid-day walkies. The weather has warmed up so Clara roots through the detritus in the antique bureau, pushing aside all the blobs of customary black. Spring seduces and demands color. She selects loose stretchy pants with a complementary fuzzy zip top both in a swirly design of yellowy green and tan. She chooses lime green Skippies for her feet. Appropriately she skips into the living room and calls the poodle: Walkies! Judith! Walkies. Toenails skitter and Clara spies a flash of black fluffiness darting into the living room then quickly out again. The dog has never played hard to get before and it gives Clara a passing odd sensation. She still hears clicking and knows the dog is searching for her. Clara turns towards the French doors entrance to the living room and catches her image in the gilt-framed mirror over the Mason-Hamlin — the wedding-gift piano from her father. What she sees in it strikes her as odd, too. There is a remarkable similarity between the living room walls and the outfit she has put on. She quickly spins around three hundred sixty degrees and looks into the mirror, as if challenging the glass. It is the same as this morning, only different. She is a head floating in a field of chartreuse and tan. She arms herself with liver treats and calls the dog again. This time Judith aroma-locates Clara. As they depart, Clara avoids the mirrors in the foyer because it has the same walls as the living room and she is uncomfortable about what she not might not see.

The phone doesn’t ring all day, which reduces Clara to chatting with Mick-man’s voice mail every couple of hours to ascertain dinner plans. Monday, the Sacred Day of Solo Dining, she acknowledges out loud. Why does she persist in hoping that things will change some day and an answered phone will propel her into cooking for two instead of defrosting for one? Or is hope the wrong word? Perhaps she is merely looking for a diversion and a mid-day call from Mick-man to confirm dinner plans would supply one. Or is this just another habit? She is in the habit of calling his voice mail. It reassures her that he hasn’t changed the number or left the country. To Clara’s credit there always remains the chance that he will answer the phone by the second ring and they will discuss what’s for dinner. Whadda want for dinnah? Sounds good, hon!

The next few days followed this pattern: Clara arose and donned her robe and marveled at her disappearance. Mick-man flew to Boston. On the third day Clara rose again and this time purposefully chose black for Mid-day walkies. A capricious storm front had blown in, though, making the effect of the floating head much the same against the preternaturally darkened living room walls. Clara noticed that if she moved very quickly from room to room she could sometimes capture a glimpse of herself in toto, but this manipulation of the scheme of things was short-lived, not to mention physically tiring.

When Mick-man returns from his trip, Clara does not mention any of these household perturbations. Since she can’t interpret them for herself she knows that she would be speaking to the air to try to impress him by their uncanny nature. The disappearing act doesn’t seem to cause any harm; she is not in pain and can pick up a book and still read, prepare a meal, play with Judith — although she admits that Judith seems somewhat bewildered when the tennis ball flies out of the wall. The alarming change occurs Friday when Mick-Man returns from work. It is earlier than usual. It is what would be considered dinner time in a normal household.

Clara had been playing Brahms and had just gotten up for a glass of iced tea when she hears him come in. She knows it is he by the tell-tale scrapings of the chair, the grunting removal of shoes, the Shoji panels dragging on their track, the inevitable profound sigh which sounds more piteous than usual. Mick-man’s coat hits the floor where it will lay until the next donning. Hanging up his outer garments was, alas, a habit his mother never taught him. She hears the pad of stockinged feet across the floorboards to the kitchen where she quietly reclines against the wall. (She has a brief notion that she is channeling Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina.”) The kitchen walls are a daffodil yellow and she is camouflaged accordingly. Mick-man looks awful: more tired than she’d ever seen him; gray hair sprouting every-which-way over his ears and temples. He’s lost weight. He doesn’t acknowledge her — which she had come not to expect — but instead does a curious thing. He pulls up one of the quaint Swiss chalet chairs that matches the quaint Swiss chalet table and, leaning on his elbows in a most dejected manner, pulls out his mobile phone and punches a number. Mick-man is a’weary and his words alarm her.

Officer Keegan, please. Yes, I’ll hold. Hello, Officer Keegan. It’s Michael Dana calling. We spoke yesterday…oh, you remember me. Well, I’m sorry, I just assumed that you had so many cases…yes, well, I’m managing to stay calm, thank you, but I still haven’t had any word. There’s no evidence that she’s been here. I just don’t know what to make of this….I’m, yes, well, of course. I’m completely at your disposal. Tell me when to come in. I’ve taken a few days off to figure things out and I’m…um, no, I don’t have anyone here…My brother lives in New Jersey…No, I didn’t want to alarm anyone — especially Clara’s family….I’m sorry. I’ve been so confused, I didn’t think of it that way…Yes, I’ll come in at 10:30. Thank you.

Mick-man takes a beer from the ‘frige and sits down again. He dials another number. Russ? Russ, do you have a minute?…Well, yes, I sound upset because I am upset….It’s Clara. I don’t know how to say this. No, she’s not sick — at least I don’t think she is. I don’t know. Russ, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about Clara. She’s not here. She’s missing. I seem to have misplaced her….MISPLACED…No, I’m serious. I thought she was here. I was in Boston this week and Judith seems perfectly fine so I just figured that Clara was busy doing whatever it is she does. No, I tell you I haven’t seen her in days….No, her things are here. I’ve called the police. I, yes, of course I’m worried. Listen, Russ, that’s why I’m calling….I was wondering if you might be able to come over tomorrow, maybe stay a couple of days….Yes, I’m pretty shaken up. Yes, I know how independent she is, but she would have left me a note if she’d decided to take off for Paris or something like that. You know how she’s always longing to do that. I thought, well, maybe that’s what happened, but her passport is here. Her purse. Everything is here that should be except for Clara. Oh, and Judith is happy as usual — well, Russ, I’m sorry to mention the dog again, but she is an important measure of the normalcy of our household….The NORMALCY… What? No, it didn’t occur to me to call Harry and Ann. I don’t want to worry them….Well, I suppose their mother would have let them know, or taken some money or something like that!…I’m sorry to snap, Russ, I just feel like I’m losing my mind. Everything was just fine, everything was going along as usual… Two peas in a pod, you know? Her doing her thing, I doing mine. She seemed happy — like she always is. Self-sufficient, kind, doing everything just for me…and now, well, I know it sounds odd, but believe me, odd things can happen. ARE happening, and…well, I just … I miss her so much I’m, I’m DISCOMBOBULATED if you want to know the truth. I don’t know what to do….Thanks. Thanks, bro. I’ll be with the police until after lunch …OK. See you tomorrow.

Clara hangs on every adoring word pouring out of the mouth of Mick-man as she hangs on the wall by the kitchen clock. She is touched by the delicate way he considers the possibilities as to where she might be — kidnapped, murdered, run over while walking to the neighbors, stricken by sudden amnesia and wandering the mall lost. Without money. A girlish smile lights up her face as she imagines how Mick-man will laugh when she tells him that she’s been here all along embedded in the wall.

The cuckoo peeps the hour and Clara realizes that she has been listening to Mick-man go over possibilities to various people for hours. She is startled at the passage of time and the fact that she hasn’t yet announced her whereabouts. If she assumes that she has been so utterly charmed by his concern for her that time has flown by unnoticed, that assessment would be correct. Clara has fallen in love with being loved. She decides to hold off speaking to Mick-man. After all, she reasons, it might frighten some people to suddenly have their loved one’s voice speak to them from inside the wall. It might drive some people quite mad and she wouldn’t want that to happen to Mick-man. For all his faults as a companion he doesn’t deserve to have his sanity ripped from him during what should and will be a perfectly reasonable explanation. She wonders what would be the best time to tell him. Nighttime isn’t right because it is too uncertain. A tired person is apt to distort simple facts when the brain and feelings have passed an entire day stirred up and confused. Morning is the time for surprises. Everything appears less threatening in morning’s cheery embrace.

Clara resolves to break the news to Mick-man in the morning — provided he gets a good night’s sleep. She wouldn’t want him to be emotionally jagged from insomnia and worry. She decides to watch over him through the night and tell him in the morning. After she sets out the tea. And walks the dog.


Elisabeth Bell Avery’s background is in  is in medicine, philosophy and comedy. She has two novels being considered for representation.


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