Secret of Walls
A small boy was walking. Each rectangle of the sidewalk required two of his strides. He stepped on no cracks. He saw the impact of his footfalls radiating down into the earth in concentric shells of force. He thought of earthworms listening in the darkness. He saw a particular earthworm, ten inches beneath him, contract its body in a momentary orgasm of awareness, and then forget. The attention span of earthworms is three seconds long. To the earthworms he was God.
He was a walking machine. His attention was limited to each arriving section of sidewalk. He was aware of nothing else. It was as if he was stationary and the sidewalk was moving under him. Since the world consisted solely of the sidewalk, there was nothing for it but to keep walking, walking, even if he wished merely to stay in one place. And he would walk forever. Countless generations of earthworms would live out their lives beneath him and still he would be walking and he would become an old, old man. In his mind's eye he took on the form of his maternal grandfather, the only old man he knew very well: Grandpa Nelson. He adopted the bent shape of Grandpa Nelson, but, unlike his grandfather, his own thighs swelled to the size of oil drums because of the continuous walking, while his arms atrophied away into leathery sticks, attached, strangely, to enormous gnarled hands that flapped spasmodically in the gray air. Walking.
For a while now he'd lived in his grandparents' house. His mother had gone to another city. There'd been some kind of trouble, but she'd be returning soon now, he knew. He expected her so imminently, in fact, that he often heard her voice coming from other rooms. He remembered recently waking up in the night with the sound of his mother's voice still reverberating in the dark bedroom. He sat up in bed and waited for the sound to come again. He believed for a moment he could smell the sweet, smoky smell that she always had. He listened for a time, absolutely still, and the headlights of a passing car came through the window, creating a swelling trapezoid of light on the wall. He watched it moving in the dark. He heard muffled voices coming from somewhere in the house. He left his room to find them. He saw a slash of light coming out of his grandparents' bedroom door. Coming closer and looking in, he saw his grandfather standing by the bed, naked except for baggy, white briefs. He gazed with fascination at the yellow-white pallor of the parts of his grandfather that were normally hidden by clothing, and at the oddly abrupt transitions to reddish-brown on the parts that were normally exposed, such as the neck and forearms. There was a sickliness and frailty to the old man's body that both surprised and repelled the boy, but the old man's eyes held a look of vigorous indignation.
"By God, I raised my kids", he was saying, "and I ain't raising hers." Here he thrust his finger toward the floor in emphasis and a sagging, mushroom-complected pectoral jiggled from the sudden motion. "You get her address next time and if she won't come and get him, I'll drive him down there myself and leave him on her goddamn doorstep. He's her child, not mine. Dallas ain't that far. You get her goddamn address."
Then, from where she lay unseen on the bed, came his grandmother's voice, thin and tired but with a cutting timbre signifying an old bitterness: "Probably don't have an address, knowing her."
And his grandfather snorted at this and went to the window and looked out, his back to the boy, and the boy looked at the old man's body. He thought of the time he had been digging under a bush and six inches down he had exposed a large, white larva of some kind. The thing had writhed obscenely, eyeless, mouthless, and he'd felt a sick kind of fear like he'd done something bad. He'd buried the thing back up and never went there again. And now, as he walked, the thought passed through his mind that this was maybe what happened to you when you got old: you got paler and paler and shrank and withered away into finally this blind worm-like thing and that's when they buried you. And maybe that was why his grandparents were so angry all the time: anticipating -- having already begun -- this metamorphosis. But anyway in the end what did he care, for he was only seven and he was a walking machine.
But then the rectangles of sidewalk stopped arriving. He saw instead the oily texture of asphalt before him and he knew that he had come to a street. His legs stopped moving but he kept his head down as before, and his attention focused on a bottle cap embedded in the surface of the street near the curb. He knew that beyond this street was the church and that he had to go in it alone and this was a frightening thing. So he gazed at the crushed bottle cap and he remained a machine but not a walking machine; now a machine with no particular function. The bottle cap was a bright thing on oily blackness, the words on it long since worn away. Now it simply shined in the surface of the street, accepting the pressure of passing cars upon it stoically and reflecting in its brightness the changing of the day's light, and for a time the machine's function was simply to witness this bottle cap. But he knew that this could not go on for long and finally he looked up.
The church was big and old. It was built of red brick. The steeple and trim were of wood, painted white. His grandmother had told him (as part of an admonishment to behave himself there) that it was God's house. He looked up at the bell tower then and, ignorant of its true purpose, considered that it would make a good lookout position for God. He could stand there and see what was going on outside his house. Perhaps he was standing there right now, the boy thought, even though you couldn't see him there. God (he was given to understand) possessed capabilities far surpassing even the mutant powers attributed to the heroes in comic books. Invisibility would certainly pose no problem. He lowered his gaze and saw a man standing at the big front doors, greeting people as they arrived. The boy didn't suppose that this was God himself. God was much too exalted to hold open his own front door. It might be an angel, though he pictured angels as habitually wearing white robes and perhaps having wings. But in any case, it was evident that he was working for God, watching the door, probably to ensure that nothing evil slipped in. The boy looked at all the people going up the steps and noticed how dressed-up they were, and he wondered if he was dressed-up enough. The suit he wore was too big for him and belonged to his cousin, Frank. In fact it smelled like Cousin Frank, and this was bad because Cousin Frank was made of shit.
Aunt Marcy would come to visit her parents every two or three weeks, and she'd always bring Frank and Jane. They'd pull up into the driveway in their big old blue car and the boy would be out on the front porch as usual because he is interested in arrivals here. Aunt Marcy would get out of the car and squint at him and say, "Where's Grandma?". And his grandmother would come out the front door smiling because Marcy is the good daughter. And he'd see Frank and Jane get out of the car and look at him. As long as the grown-ups were near, Frank would regard him with half-closed, reptilian eyes and with a slight smirk which he almost always wore. And Jane would look at him with an expression of preoccupied abstraction, the thin, mouse-colored hair hanging down on either side of her gaunt little face. She would have on one of the simple dresses she always wore and the boy would look at her skinny legs and feet. And she would look at him as if he weren't really quite there and in one hand she would be holding a little transistor radio against her ear. It wasn't much bigger than a pack of smokes and you rarely heard it because she kept the volume turned very low and the little speaker muffled into her ear. It was her private connection to some other world, and it was a better and more interesting world than this one. And then the grown-ups would tell the children to go play in back. Jane would take up her position on the back steps with her radio and look abstractedly into space. Before long Frank would start to chase him with his lizard eyes and his smirk and he would keep chasing him until he caught him. He would always catch him because he is older and stronger and anyway the boy's strength is being sucked away by the clenched thing in his stomach until he has no energy left to run. So finally Frank would grab an arm or a leg and pull him to the ground. And he would lay the boy on his back and kneel on his flat-pressed elbows and sit his ass on the boy's chest. If the boy struggled, Frank would put more weight on his knees which hurt like fuck. So the boy would struggle no longer and wish Aunt Marcy or Grandma would come out and make Frank stop but he knew they were sitting around the kitchen table playing cards and laughing and talking and pouring vodka into their diet sodas. They were not paying attention to kids and wouldn't notice if he cried out. And Jane would be sitting on the back steps listening to her transistor radio, taking no notice of Frank, because to her Frank is just part of how the world is and, once apprehended, no longer worthy of notice. And then Frank would begin his game: He would hock up a wad of mucous and lean his elongated, brutal face over the boy's face with empty eyes like those of stuffed animals the boy had seen. He would slowly let out a thick string of viscous spittle and let it dangle over the boy's eyes and just before it dropped onto the boy's face he would suck it back in. That is Frank's game. And he would do it over and over, occasionally grinding his knees into the boy's elbows when he remembered that pain is part of the game, too. And sometimes he would misjudge the extent to which the slime could be kept adangle and it would drop onto the bridge of the boy's nose and pool in the corner of his closed eye and Frank would look at him with concern and say, "Oh, I'm sorry. Did I get some on you?" And that's when Jane would look up as if she had just received an important message from her radio and she would look at the boy intently and say "I know what your mom is." And the boy would think how his mother was her mother's sister and how he hadn't seen her for a long time. "Your mom's a whore", Jane would say.
It just showed what Jane or Aunt Marcy or any of the rest of them knew, because his mother was, in fact, a dancer. He'd even seen her special dancing clothes, though he'd never seen her wearing them. He would often imagine what she must look like dancing and when he visualized it he couldn't help giving her wings. He remembered some animated movie she'd taken him to a long time ago when they lived in that little apartment in the city (he remembered playing on the fire escape) and in the movie there were beautiful fairies with wings. They would fly about and each thing they touched would turn to silver. It was one of these fairies he would visualize when he thought about his mother dancing. He knew this was stupid. He'd seen the place across the river where she worked. She'd taken him there to get her paycheck. He'd waited in the car. He remembered there were two men in the parking lot when they pulled up. On one man you could see a big swath of his bare stomach because his T- shirt wasn't big enough, the sparse hair on it and the craterous navel and he was talking to this other, thin man who was leaning against a car and smiling and looking away. But when his mother got out of her car and started walking toward the building the thin man noticed right away and stood up straight and called out to his mother, and the fat man looked over and then looked down like he still had more to say. And his mother smiled and talked to the thin man as she passed and went into the building and when she was gone the thin man grabbed his crotch like somebody'd kicked him and shouted something and then they both laughed. And the fat man looked over straight into the boy's eyes, still laughing. And then the boy looked over at the building and noticed that there wasn't a single window on it so you couldn't see inside. But anyway on the outside it didn't look like a place for fairies.
So he stood on the corner in Cousin Frank's suit, looking at the church. He considered again that he could simply take a long walk, keeping the church in view, and when he saw the people coming out of it he could simply go home. But his grandmother had anticipated this kind of trickery.
"And don't be thinking you can get away with lying to me," she had said that morning while tying up his necktie (he was aware again of the uncomfortable pressure on his throat), "I know people down there and I've asked them to watch for you. So just you behave yourself, do you hear?"
He had asked her again if she wouldn't please come with him but she said she had too much to do this morning and she guessed the Lord would understand that, and anyway she guessed she wasn't the one needing to learn about Jesus. And from this he understood that this was all just another expression of her anger toward his mother.
He walked across the street and onto the grounds of the church and stood for a time under a sycamore tree beside the path. The branches from the tree drooped low enough to obscure him somewhat, and from this position he watched the families pass him on their way to the church door. His plan was to inconspicuously join one of these families so that the man at the door would not notice him. The trick was to walk at exactly the proper distance from the family: closely enough so that he would be taken by an onlooker to be a straggling family member, yet far enough away so that the family itself would not perceive him as intruding. And while the old man at the door was greeting the father and mother, he would slip through unseen.
He began looking down the path for a likely family. Already the number of people arriving was beginning to decrease; it would be risky to wait much longer. He saw a woman and a little girl, about his age, coming up the walk. They both looked nice in their church clothes. He guessed they were richer than his grandparents. He worried that Cousin Frank's suit would contrast noticeably with their nice clothes, and it would have been better with a father, too, but he didn't dare wait. Then, as they came nearer, the little girl looked straight at him. She'd noticed him under his tree. He thought once more of simply waiting there until the meeting was over but then the little girl smiled at him. When they passed his tree he fell in behind them. The little girl didn't look back. He quickened his stride. He was almost close enough to touch her, now. The mother hadn't noticed anything. Then they were going up the steps. The mother paused to take the old man's outstretched hand and speak to him, and the little girl stopped and turned to regard the boy. For two seconds he looked in her eyes. Then he dodged around the mother and into the church.
He found himself in a carpeted foyer, containing a lot of people who were standing in little clumps, talking. He heard the general hum of language, and above that a woman's laughter; a child's shout. He felt he still might be singled out if he simply stood where he was, alone, so he looked about for a place to hide. Against a far wall he saw a stand for hanging coats, full of empty hangers now because it was summer. He made his way toward it and stood in a corner near it and, partially obscured, he waited to see what would happen next. In a while, music from an organ began to play and people began to amble toward another doorway. He ambled too. He looked among the crowd for his ostensible family but he could not see them. He went into a big room. Many people were already sitting in the rows of wooden benches and everyone else were finding seats. He followed behind a cluster of people, hoping to find a place to sit unnoticed. The music reminded him vaguely of a scary movie he had once seen where a disfigured man lived in the sewers beneath an old building. He scanned the room for the source of the sound and saw two girls -- almost grownups -- sitting together on a bench before a keyboard.
One girl's hands crawled slowly on the keys like obedient creatures on the ends of her arms while she squinted intently at a book of music on a little ledge above the keys. The other girl was holding to a page in the book and looking alertly at the player. While he watched, at a nod from the player, she turned the page. Near the back of the room he chose a place to sit on an outer aisle. Beyond the aisle there was a wall. He relaxed a little now that he was sitting. He looked at the people who were walking down the aisle near him. To his relief, they took no notice of him. He looked between their moving bodies to the wall beyond the aisle. The bricks had been painted white, but he could still make out the mortar joints. His eyes ran along the joints and he imagined an ant using them for roads. To an ant, the joints would present an endless maze, beyond understanding. He had a special liking for bricks, and he knew the secret of their strength.
He remembered discovering the secret when his mother was still with him and they stayed at the little house near the interstate. The house sat at the terminus of a dead-end street in the lower part of the city. It had a short gravel driveway and a front yard almost devoid of grass because of the deep shade cast by two old poplars and a twisted oak. Ten feet behind the house was a chain link fence and beyond that was the interstate. He would cling to the fence with the toes of his sneakers dug between the galvanized wires and he would watch the cars and trucks go by. He would often try to glimpse the faces of the people in the cars and sometimes he was able. Sometimes, in fact, he was able to see them looking back at him and for a second his eyes would meet theirs. At these times it was as if he was trying to transmit some important message through this ephemeral linkage of eyes, but the moment was always too short and anyway he wasn't sure what his message might have been.
He remembered the tall weeds between the house and the fence and how they turned into dry stalks in August, and the millions of grasshoppers that dwelt there, insane from the constant exposure of their rudimentary minds to the engine-whine of the interstate. As you walked through the dry weeds they would spring angrily at your face and hit you hard enough to hurt. If you caught one it would regard you with its mad insect eyes and struggle to get free, but if you pulled off the big jumping legs it would become a docile creature, easily controlled. He remembered capturing some of them once and removing their jumping legs and putting them in a corral he had built out of twigs. Then they were horses and the dry weeds became a vast forest. He knelt in the dust amid the sounds of the highway and looked down on them like God. And then his mother called him and he went in the house to a dish of canned spaghetti and his mother left for work. And he sat on the carpet before the television in the little house and began building his own house out of little plastic bricks. This house would have no doors or windows, for openings like these would only mitigate its strength, and anyway the main purpose was to keep things out. It would be a blind house and very strong, stronger than any he had built before because he had recently discovered the secret of strong walls: each new course of bricks should be placed so that the cracks between the bricks in the previous course were covered by the bricks in the new course. He had noticed that his was how real buildings were built. He imagined himself to be the minute size required to live in the house and saw himself curling up on the plastic floor and sleeping for many days, safe in his stronghold. He would place his house when he had finished it on the kitchen table were his mother would be bound to see it when she came home. She would see how real his building looked. Judging by the past, he would be asleep by then, however hard he tried to stay awake.
So he built his house and watched the television. The man and the woman in the television were having some kind of argument. The man would say something to the woman (who was as pretty as his mother, he noted) and unseen people would laugh. Then the woman would reply to the man and the people would laugh again. Nothing they said struck the boy as particularly funny, but he laughed anyway whenever the people laughed. In doing this he felt himself to be part of a vast community of people who were in on the joke. And the last rays of the sun slanted through the closed living room curtains, casting an amber light throughout the room, and he thought that soon it would be night.
Now, as he sat in the church, more and more people were filling up the benches around him. He began to worry that places on the benches might be formally assigned and that he might be sitting in someone's reserved spot. He sat stiffly, staring at the little wooden holder on the back of the bench before him. It held an old blue hymn book. He wanted to look inside the book but he didn't dare. It, too, might be reserved.
A few minutes later someone did sit next to him, so closely that the person's thigh rubbed against his. Afraid to look up, the boy could tell how big the man must be by looking at the size of a hand resting on a thigh. He must be huge, thought the boy, and after a moment he could not keep himself from looking up at the man's face.
It was to the boy a giant's face: Not only was the head itself magnificently large, every feature within the face seemed over-pronounced in its own right, almost to the point of being frightening. The man was looking up toward the dais now, expectantly waiting for the service to begin, and was unaware of the little boy looking at him. The boy gazed at the twin caves of the man's nostrils, the impossibly wide mouth frozen in a serene smile. He noted the porous hide covering the pendulous sack of flesh which was the man's nose, and he could distinctly see the network of tiny red veins within the man's eyes and the glistening rims of the eye sockets, giving the eyes the look of two shattered bulbs in deep nests of red membrane. When the boy finally turned to look forward again he was full of envy for the size of the man next to him. He wondered how it would feel to be so huge: You could go anywhere, afraid of nothing; no one would dare stand in your way. He looked at the man's hand and marveled at the span of its grip. With hands that huge, who could prevail against you? He imagined himself to be the owner of hands like these, and thought of how Cousin Frank's head would feel in his palm, and how he might, if he chose, crush it, encountering no more resistance that might be offered by some worm-eaten tomato.
Then the boy was startled by the sound of the congregation swelling into song around him. It was an ominous sound that produced somehow a tight, tingling feeling on the back of his neck and down his shoulders. Looking about, he noticed that most of the people were holding the little blue hymnbooks open upon their knees, though the large man beside him seemed to be singing from memory alone and his deep voice was one of the loudest. Looking toward the lectern he saw a woman there who seemed to be the boss of the singing. The motions of her hand -- held outward before her like a claw in the air -- seeming to control it.
After the hymn the service began. Four people spoke at length from the dais that morning, but afterward the boy remembered little of what they had said. What struck him more than the words was the hierarchy of power that was implied by the very way in which the speeches were delivered; the speakers standing behind the upraised lectern, their faces partially obscured by the microphone before them as they intoned their messages; the congregation sitting as they were in orderly rows, the organ-girl and her helper sitting with hands in their laps, listening intently, ready at any signal to bring back the God-music. It was all organized in such a way as to make the power of God immediate, undeniable, awesome.
The ordering of events was perhaps significant as well: beginning with organizational announcements, then a heartfelt talk about the force of Jesus in one's life given by a teenage girl, then a homely -- even humorous -- story delivered by an elderly gentleman. And finally the minister himself delivering his sermon; starting out conversationally, dropping a joke or two, then becoming serious and adamant, and finally ending with a force and urgency derived, it seemed, from the authority of God himself. Afterwards the congregation audibly expelled its breath in unison, relieved and satisfied at the resolution of tension, and when the organ begin to play they gratefully broke into song, During the hymn he again looked to the wall at his right and thought of the secret of these walls, and of the night he had discovered it.
He remembered that there had come -- as always -- the struggle to stay awake. He remembered laying with his cheek pressed against the old blanket that covered the couch and having his knees drawn up. A man on the television now seemed to be the boss of the unexplained laughter. The boy still tried to laugh too because he believed if he could only discover what was funny he might be able to stay awake. But as always he was unable to pull it off, and he did not remember the point at which he failed in his struggle and fell asleep. And then as if it were an instant later he was awake again and feeling disoriented because he'd been robbed of a slice of time and the front door was opening and the fear clenched in him. But as always it turned out to be his mother and he was up from the couch and going to her when he saw the man behind her and he stopped. He disliked these men that sometimes came home with her. But his mother gave him a hug even tighter than usual as if to make up for something and he looked up at the man's face over her shoulder and he could see the watery, glazed look in the eyes that he knew came from drinking. The man looked uncomfortable and said, "Little late for you to be up, ain't it partner?" and there was an underlying anger in the man's voice but then his mother laughed in her soft, feathery way and things were all right.
And his mother drew a glass of water at the kitchen sink and led him to his bedroom and squatted down in front of him to look in his face. He could only see half of her face from the way the light from the hall cut across it, but it was a smiling half. The water she gave him did not feel cold going down his throat and it tasted like metal. She told him goodnight and hugged him and he smelled the sweet, smoky smell in her hair and then the sound from the stereo in the other room came booming in because the man must have put on a CD.
He lay down in the bed and covered up with only the sheet because of the heat and looked at the black silhouette of his mother in the doorway. She closed the door and then it was completely black until his eyes adjusted to the dim light coming in the window from headlights on the interstate and he lay on his side listening to the world. For a time he heard the low pulsation of the stereo in the living room making its way through the walls, and over that now and then the man's voice like a muffled bark and less often his mother's voice lifted in laughter. It was such a hot night; his legs were wet where he'd been pressing them together and the sheet clung to him, making movement difficult.
But after a while, without his noticing it, the sound of the stereo seemed to go away and it was then that he could hear the whine of the cars hurtling past his window in the dark and he lay there in the sweaty sheet and let the sad sound doppler over him. He began to hear new sounds coming from another room; a high, hurting voice punctuated by bewildered barks of a much lower pitch and he knew it was his mother and the man. He hoped suddenly that they wouldn't with all their bumping things around damage his house that must still be on the kitchen table; knock it on the floor or something.
In the church the organ began to play, but softer now. He noticed for the first time six young men with clean, scalpeled faces who rose to their feet in a special area where they had been sitting all along, They began to break apart slices of white bread rapidly, yet solemnly, and placed the pieces on little silver trays on a table between them. The woman who had been boss of the singing stepped to the microphone and said "And as they were eating Jesus took bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples and said, Take, eat, this is my body." And quietly the scalpeled ones moved among the congregation, pushing silver carts laden with trays of bread fragments. The organ played and the people waited for their share of the body with a look more vacant than tranquil, the look of suspended souls. One young man would hand a tray of fragments to the first person in a row, each person would take a piece of the body and pass the tray to the next person, the organ softly playing, and when the tray reached the end another boy would collect it.
And the large man handed a tray to the boy with a smile and the boy ate his bit of the body and handed the tray to a scalpeled one who stood, hands clasped, eyes forward, near the bench. And when everyone had consumed their portion and all the trays were gathered up, the six young men went back to their area and brought out new trays, these containing little paper cups of water. The organ played and the woman stood to the microphone and said, "And he took the cup and gave it to them, saying, drink ye all of it; for this is the blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." And the young men began to distribute the blood and still the organ played and when the large man handed the tray to the boy, the boy had difficulty removing his little cup of water and he spilled it on the carpet at his feet. A surge of fear welled up in him and he looked up at the young man, but his spilling of the blood had gone unnoticed.
After handing the tray off he looked down at the wet spot on the gray carpet. It was clearly visible. He placed the toe of his shoe over it and wondered in what way he was different because he had not, like all the others, drank the blood, and he wondered if God was angry at his spilling it.
The organ began to play a faster, more insistent melody and the woman stood up and made more announcements that he didn't understand. Then all the people began standing up and the children began leaving the big room while the adults stood about speaking with one another. He remembered his grandmother telling about Sunday school coming after the main service and that he had to stay for that as well. So he followed a line of children going out into the hallway. He saw children going into different rooms. He knew the classes were assigned by age, but no one seemed to him to be the same age as he was. He walked on. The sound of the organ from the big room had stopped by now. There were fewer children in the hallway. He had to decide. Then he saw a door with a plaque on it that said "Janitor". He didn't even look to see if anyone was watching as he quickly went inside, turned on the light, and closed the door. For a moment he felt a thrill about having solved his problem, then fear. What if the janitor came? he wondered. He decided it wasn't likely.
He remembered the morning he'd last seen her; she'd knelt down before him and held his shoulders and looked into his face. The cloudy, blue discoloration around her eyes (which had yet to fade, though it had been more than a week) was to him like some kind of bruise-colored mask, and he fleetingly wondered if it might provide her a useful anonymity for her journey. "You mind for Grandma now, okay?", she'd said. "Soon as I get a place I'll come get you, okay?" And he'd looked up at his grandmother standing there against the stove frowning down at them.
Now he stood in the little room and with his eyes followed the handle of the mop down into the tangled gray mass resting in the wringer on the wheeled bucket, and he looked at the old, filthy water within it. He knew he would have to listen for sounds of people walking in the hall which would mean the people were leaving. He would keep waiting until there was no more sound and then, with luck, he could leave unseen. In the meantime he looked at the things in the little room; at the bucket, mop, a heap of rags, a trash can, and he looked at the walls, knowing their secret.