“If walls could talk,” they say. I don’t remember the rest of the quote, but really, what would they tell us about what they hear? Good stuff from friends; bad shit from enemies. Now that’s what we’re really thinking of. The dirt, the inside scoop, the secret plans that our asshole bosses are making, because they have low self-esteem, are insensitive and narcissistic. What if it’s not that cut and dried? What if the walls chatter all the time about inane and nonsensical stuff?
My walls do talk and before you quit reading because you think I am full of shit, let me tell you what happened. I was making some fish stock from some giant carp I was given at a food shelf. (I had responded to an ad through the workforce center about free fish). As I simmered the fish, including head and bones, the steam rose up and unstuck the 3M tape I had used to tack my Depression glass plates to the soffits in my ancient basement galley kitchen apartment. Well, when the tape let loose, the one of the plates fell down, hitting the ladle in the soup pot. As it connected with the ladle handle, the force of the contact flipped the ladle out of the pot and onto the floor. Fortunately the plate landed in the stock pot and did not break.
I had been in the other room when I heard the clatter, got up and went into the kitchen to see what had happened. There was fish broth on the counter and on the floor, but the floor was quickly cleaned up by my one of my little dogs. I climbed up on the counter to see what had caused the hook to give way. It was condensation from the cooking process. I then decided to pull the 3M hooks off the soffit entirely and come up with a different way to hang my treasures.
Because of the age of the building, the surface of the soffit had many layers of paint that had over time fused together as a thick layer resembling skin or hide. As I attempted to pull the hook off the soffit, the paint pulled away like taffy, but did not release. As I continued to pulled, the paint reached the end of its tensile value and the hook let loose, taking some of the paint with it and leaving a small hole in the paint layer. At the moment that the hook and the stuck paint were freed from the soffit, I heard a hiss coming from the hole in the paint. It reminded me of someone’s sharp intake of breath.
“Creepy.” I thought, and forgot about it, my mind trying to find a different way of remounting the plate and the other treasures attached by the same method.
That night, I awoke to the sound of breathing. It was soft and rhythmic and it wasn’t coming from my cat or the two shiatsus sleeping peacefully on my bed. My windows were closed, no sirens sounded and my dogs did not seem to notice anything. I went back to sleep.
Over the next couple of weeks, the sound of breathing continued. Sometimes it came as panting, gasping and the languidness of sleep. I started a tape so when I was away from the apartment, I could listen to it to see if what I heard was really happening. I could still hear it and also had a friend listen, to which she confirmed that she could hear it too.
I don’t know why I wasn’t frightened. The animals didn’t sense any menace. Maybe that was why. It was intriguing and I thought it could be some vent that allowed sound to travel from another apartment. Some of my peace was shaken when the breathing began to change and sound like words being mouthed. Okay, I admit I was getting really creeped out, by the moaning and hissing sounds.
One evening as I sat at my computer to write, drinking wine and actually playing solitaire instead, I lost my patience with the noise and by the niggling fear.
“Will you just stop with the loud breathing? It’s getting annoying.” The room went totally silent, and then soft breathing began again. The thing is that it didn’t matter what room I was in, the sound and the presence was the same. I had looked for vents and microphones, but there was just nothing there, except “the presence.”
The presence now felt sad and…what else…frustration? Yes, sadness and frustration. I quit pretending to write. I remembered when this whole thing had started, when the hole in the soffit hissed when I pulled the hook off. I walked away from the computer and put my hand on the wall.
“Hello Wall.” The breathing became quicker and the wall under my hand quivered. “Are you alive? Are you trying to speak?” Again the breathing picked up and the wall paint quivered under my hand. We worked out the beginning communication, as I began with the same questions.
“Are you alive? Breathe and quiver.
“Are you in the wall?” Breathe and quiver.
“Can you talk?” Silence.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” Breathe and quiver.
“Do you think you could talk?” Breathe and quiver.
“Should I be afraid of you?” Silence.
“Yea, right,” I thought. “That was a stupid question. If it was evil, it wouldn’t show its hand, not that it had any hands that I knew of.”
“Do you have a name?” Silence.
“Would you like a name?” Breathe and quiver.
“How about just calling you Wall?” Breathe and quiver.
There was a peaceful silence that I understood as the wall getting a feel for its name. I got to thinking about the computer in the old movie 2001 Space Odyssey.
“How about Hal?” by now I didn’t need to keep my hand pressed to the wall to understand its pulse. First there was silence, and then there was a raucous vibration bouncing around the room.
“Are you laughing?” Breathe and quiver.
“So you understand where the name came from and you think it’s funny?” Breathe and quiver.
“Are you Hal?” Silence. Again, I thought “Yeah right.”
“Ok.” I continued. “I have a few more questions and then we can work on helping you to speak. Next question, do you live in the wall and crawl around from room to room?” Silence.
“Do you live in the ceiling?” Silence.
“So where do you live? Silence.
“Does your silence mean no or that you aren’t alive.” Silence.
“Does it mean you don’t know how to answer the question?” Breathe and quiver.
“One more question, when you are breathing and I can hear it, can the rest of the building hear you?” Silence.
“Are you sure?” Breathe and quiver.
“Ok, let me think a bit about how this could work.” I sat for a good twenty minutes before I came up with a solution.
“I got it.” I said. “I know you can control your breathing, and you can read, or however you understood the Hal thing.” Breathe and quiver.
“So let’s start with the letter ‘H’. That’s like breathing out, so if you breathe out, like ‘huh’. Try that.”
It did and eventually it learned to talk. The process was long and tedious and I don’t want to bore anyone with it. There was one issue that bears sharing that happened in the very beginning with the ‘H’ sound. We worked on Hi, ha ha, Hal and hello.
As Hal practiced, I was afraid that I had let loose a nightmare. He sounded more like a spook, saying “Ha ha ha and heh heh heh and Ha-l Ha-l Hal. Finally he-l l l l, hel l l l, hel l l l o o o o. It was just plain creepy.
Hal and I talked a lot about what it was like to be a non-human sentient being. What it was like to not be able to talk before, whether he knew of any other walls that could talk and how far he was able to be part of the building.
He said he had been aware of himself becoming awake when they began building this building; that he was only able to be part of this building, but that he could see his surroundings and the people within and around his building. If there were any other “Hals” he was unaware of them.
We’ve been getting along pretty good for the last couple of years. Because of Hal, I am quitting my day job, and retiring early as a writer. I will focus on my writing and maybe travel for pleasure a little. Today I came home, dropped my purse on the floor, flopped onto the couch, hugged my pets and said hello to Hal. This has become a daily routine.
“How was your day?” Hal begins. By the way Hal does not sound like Hal from the movie. Hal is not male or female. Hal sounds like an elf, with humor and a little mischief, and usually pretty happy.
“Okay,” I responded. “But you know the truth, it doesn’t matter how hard they try to be fair and humane, I don’t like working in the corporate world.”
“I know, and you don’t like the politics and greedy office games.”
“Oh that’s a good one, Hal,” I responded. “Greedy Office Games. I might have to use that.”
“Thank you.” Said Hal.
“Welcome,” I responded. “What about your day?”
“It was good.” Hal said. “You know Julie in Apt 202? Well she was curled up on her couch, when her cat chased a mouse up across her leg, up the back of the couch, up the wall and out through a crack in the window. The cat followed as far as it could go, scratching her Julie’s leg as it pursued the mouse. Julie freaked out, knocking her coke onto her magazine; hitting her head on the bookshelf and giving out a little squeak that sounded just like the mouse that started the whole thing. I laughed so hard I almost made her walls quiver.”
We had a comfortable friendship, but it wasn’t always this way. I keep coming back to that first year of adjustment. The damned wall never slept. It kept talking excitedly about things in the past. I could understand never having another being to talk to, to question, or to relate to, even though Hal had never known it wanted that. Hal had been perfectly content to be a wall, until I ripped open the paint and started the nightmare.
“Did I tell you about the people in 306? They were part of the mob!” This comment at two in the morning, after I repeatedly said I needed to sleep.
“Shut up!” I said.
“But it was really scary and exciting!”
“I don’t care. Shut up!” It was quiet for a while in the room and just as I was falling asleep, Hal started up again.
“Well that’s rude.” There was a pause. “Saying shut up.”
Another pause from Hal, “I would never say shut up to you. Why you might ask? It’s because I love you, Leanne. I really, really love you. You are a perfect friend, you gave me a voice. Now you don’t want me to use my voice? Well that hurts my feelings. There are years of memories that I want to share with you, my perfect friend.”
I bury my ears under the pillow to drown out another monologue and I actually fall asleep. This has been going on for months, so maybe I am becoming immune to it. I also know that I have to deal with the wall’s peevishness when I wake up.
“Good morning, my darling friend.”
“Good morning,” I mumble with toothpaste in my mouth.”
“I am glad you have the gift of sleep. Unlike me, who has to stay awake all night, watching over you and your beloved pets, while you slumber in your innocence. I listen to your snores and your farts, but do I complain? No, because I love you! You are so beautiful, to me.” Hal starts singing Joe Cocker’s rendition of the song with the same name.
I never knew I could get my morning routine done as quickly as I have learned to do. I am out in half an hour, but not before more of Hal.
“Are you leaving? Again? You just left yesterday. Why do you have to leave again today? Why do you have to leave me alone again? I’ve been alone for soooooooooo long.”
Hal starts to wail.
“Hal,” I say. “We’ve been through this so many times before. I have to work; I need to sleep at night. I am not wall, like you. This wailing isn’t going to help. You’re just trying to manipulate me. Now stop your psycho-blubbering and keep your voice down or someone will hear you in the halls.
Hal keeps on blubbering, softly now, as I lock the apartment go up the stairs and out the door, until I can’t hear it anymore. You see, I often taped Hal during the day, and as soon as I would walk out the door, Hal stops the fake crying, and sometimes actually laughs.
“Well, that didn’t work.” Hal says. “I need her attention! I need her to understand how upsetting it is to not have her here all the time. There must be a way. I must think!” Hal talks to the pets, which totally ignore it.
After a short silence, Hal says, “I do like the imagery of ‘psyco-blubbering’. Hal giggles.
Sometimes Hal tried the silent treatment, but that never lasted long. After never having a voice to having one and having someone who would listen and not run screaming out of the building, Hal couldn’t keep quiet for long.
One time Hal decided to try opening the conversation to someone else in the building. It came back to me laughing so hard, the entire apartment quivered. When it could finally talk without going into another fit of laugher, it explained what had happened.
“Well, I started out by saying hi Danny, my name is Hal, and I am your wall.”
I stopped what I was doing, trying to picture where this was going. “Which apartment? Is it the Danny that’s about forty, the security guard?” I asked. “Ok, so what happened?”
“Well, he sat there for a while looking around. I said hello again, and he asked me if it were God speaking. I told him no, that I was a sentient being that just learned to talk.”
“…and your name is Hal, like the 2001 Space Odyssey?”
I said, “Yes. That’s my name, but I am a wall, not a computer.” I started to tell him how I got my name and how I started talking, but he interrupted me by looking around and saying, this is bullshit and he jumped off the toilet and ran toward the door, but he tripped and fell because he hadn’t pulled up his pants. Then he ran out the door, making a funny little keening sound. If I could pee, I would have been laughing so hard I would have peed on my own doorstep.”
The walls were quivering again. “… and … and you know how he likes to go out dressed like a woman? … well when he tripped, he fell on his belly … and his wig fell off … and one of his pumps flew off and … and his skirt flipped up in the back and showed off his rather cute bum!”
I was silent, picturing Danny’s shock and predicament. The apartment was silent, and then Hal gave a great sigh of contentment. I shook my head and my smile broadened to a chuckle. Hal started to giggle and by the time we were both sated by laughter, I had tears in my eyes and Hal was quiet for the rest of the evening (with the exception of a giggle or two. It was the closest I can imagine to Hal sleeping).
There is one more incident that helped set the compatible existence that we enjoy now. It too was during that early tumultuous time. Hal, I think was afraid of being the silent being it had been since its beginning, and when I wasn’t there, I don’t think it was comfortable with solitude anymore.
Hal threatened to not let me leave the apartment. Now that made me afraid. He threatened to hurt my pets, and that made me mad.
Then he threatened to bar the doors and windows so I couldn’t get out, I didn’t know if he could actually do that. I think Hal could, but I would never tell him that. I told Hal that I would scream and scream until someone let me out. Hal said he would make the walls of my apartment so thick that no one could hear through them. I told him I would die from running out of food and that he would be all alone again. I would be dead and would rot and what good of a friend would I be then?
Hal was being stubborn and adamant that he wouldn’t let me leave. The moment of truth came when I chose to match its dare. I grabbed my pets and my bag and my laptop walked to the door. I was sweating and my hand was shaking. Hal was saying the door knob was hot and that he had connected it to a live electric wire. I grabbed the knob and turned. It opened just fine and we all walked out. The cat was yowling in my arms and definitely not happy to be in an upsetting situation. I could hear Hal say, “oops,” as I called its bluff.
Now I was really angry. I came back in, quietly closed the door, let the pets go, set my bags down and took a couple of deep breaths.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” I said. “If you ever start to threaten, you know what I am going to do? I am going to let the word spread that this place is haunted and eventually no one will ever want to live here again. You know what happens to buildings that are abandoned?”
Hal was crying and sniffing. “No, what happens?”
“They tear them down,” I said with as much drama as I could. “Then where would you be? Dead! Yes, that’s right, dead!”
Hal began to wail and I told him to keep it down or other people would know. I left to go down the street to the Spy House Coffee House on Nicollet Avenue. Before I left, I turned on the tape to see if this was another ruse. I had really scared Hal.
I sat there drinking my latte thinking about how weird all this was. I am leaving an apartment where the walls talk and going to the SPY house. I remembered a conversation I had had with this young man from Siberia, from which he had fled, telling about the new Russian spooks persecuting his people. He told us that his first day in south Minneapolis, while waiting at a bus stop, he hid as bullets were ricocheting around due to gang wars. He was already paranoid because of the culture from which he came, and then the bullets his first day.
Finally, my friend was telling a horrid story to him and me about something he had witnessed as a security guard. This young Siberian thought he was undercover CIA. I realized what was going on and tried to add a bit of humor, saying that this wasn’t the Spy House for nothing. Unless one understands a language like ones mother tongue, humor doesn’t transfer well between cultures and I made the situation worse. I still feel bad about that.
Anyway I sat there at the Spy House Coffee Shop thinking about the damned wall, Hal. I think I scared it enough, unless of course it was all bullshit in the first place. It was time to go home. Hal was contrite and didn’t talk all night.
I awoke sometime around 3:00 am listening to Hal cry softly. “Hal,” I said. “Why do you sniff your nose when you are crying?”
“Isn’t that what you do when you are crying?” Hal said.
“If you have a nose and it’s dripping.”
“Are you okay, Hal?”
“I am okay and I am sorry.” He sniffed again. “Okay, I don’t have a nose, but it does feel good and right to make the sniff sound.”
“You can sniff all you want, Hal.”
“You’re not going to tell everyone that I am haunting this place?”
“No, as long as you don’t bully me or my pets, things will work out.” I replied.
“How do I know you aren’t trying to keep me to yourself? Maybe it would be better if the world new about me and you don’t want that? Maybe I am God or the Messiah but don’t know it? Maybe you are just messing with my mind?”
“Hal!” I said exasperated.
“Okay, Okay!” Hal said. “I’m just asking.”
“Hal,” I said comfortingly. “We will work this out. We will find a way to live together and both of us to be happy, okay?”
“Okay. Good Night.”
“Good Night, Hal.”
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…” Hal began singing softly.
“Hal!” I couldn’t help laughing; knowing Hal was being its silly self.
Hal giggled and fell silent.
We did work it out, which is why I can write about this whole experience. We do our own thing, but we reserve a certain amount of time each day and let Hal talk. I write everything down and publish his stories. I publish under my name of course. I write about the events that have touched the lives of those that have lived in this apartment building. My writing is well acclaimed. I have paid off bills and student loans. I purchased an RV so I could be an old hippie, but instead of a Volkswagen bus, I travel in comfort, with my sweet pets.
Hal gets lonely. My friend Angie comes in and stays. I have also introduced Hal to a fledgling writer named Heather. Heather and I got to know each other at a book signing. She is my perfect replacement. She and Hal actually have a better relationship than Hal and I did, but Heather didn’t have to go through the hell either.
Tomorrow I am going to tell Hal that I am going to be leaving the apartment. I think it will be an easy transition because of Heather. I will come back and visit and I can never thank Hal enough for coming into my life. I will work on my half finished novels and am looking forward to the future, without another Hal in my life.