Her tiredness was sharp and it was cutting at her but she didn’t want to sound melodramatic. She didn’t slump or lie down and she kept her complaints to a minimum. Besides, this was a choice, hers. She told herself others were just as tired and more. Her husband would be home soon. He’d been on the streets and god knows what he has had to see and do. She would take some time with him when he got home, when the boys were finally asleep, and he would tell her about his day. He liked to tell her about the politics on the job, the promotions and demotions, the guys being sent to records and others making detective. He skimmed over what he had to do on patrol, talking mostly about the standout moments, the child who pushed himself through the sliding glass door shattering the glass slicing an artery and her husband finding the open vein and pinching it until the ambulance came, and the car accidents that he could do nothing about but be there, witnessing the meaty carnage. He was so tired when he got home and she always waited up. She liked to hear him talk. It got her out of her own skin and she needed to hear an adult speak.
But it was still a few hours until her husband got home and she was here with the kids, pretending to go to the bathroom but really hiding there with the door locked and feeling guilty. The noise in the wall had been louder than usual and she’s not sure how much longer she can stand it. She can’t even recall when she first heard the sounds anymore. It seems to have always been there, or at least since the day she left her job, not a job but a career as a high school English teacher, and returned home to raise her child. Her choice, she’d remind herself, her choice, like a mantra meant to soothe, or to reassure her that she had control, that she placed herself here and so she could pull herself out.
“Sean!” she had called to her five-year-old before heading for the bathroom. “Listen, can you hear it?”
And they froze, her littlest one saying, “Uh oh,” as the three of them stood in the bedroom staring at the yellow wall, waiting to hear the sound.
“I heard it,” cheered Sean.
“You did, right?” she said. “They’re running in the walls.”
She placed an empty parmesan cheese container to the wall and pressed her ear to the closed end—she found she could hear them better like this—and listened. Hollow oceanic sounds and then tiny claws scratching, skittering, close to her face.
“We have to kill those fucking things,” she whispered.
“What mommy?” Sean said.
“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing. We need to call the exterminator back again.”
“What’s an extermaaannnna … What’s that?”
“They’ll come and get the things out of the wall,” she said.
Her son screamed towards the bathroom.
“Davy’s trying to bite my face, Mom! No Davy!”
She unlocked the door and walked outside. Their home was small, a ranch, with a tiny living room, three bedrooms, a kitchen with a breakfast bar for a table, and a basement where the children had their toys. She had a corner in the living room, with a tiny lamp, and a bag of yarn and knitting needles on top of a table. There, she’d sit in the lamplight and try to knit as her boys played on the floor. If it was warmer, they’d go out, into the yard, playing in the fort her husband built, or running through the vegetable gardens; she’d let them get as dirty as they wanted, and then strip them down and hose them off. But now it was winter and too cold for the little one to go outside. Sometimes they’d go to the mall and walk around, but mostly they were in the house now.
Davy was lying on top of Sean, chomping at him. Sean screamed and pushed his little brother’s shoulders back as the tiny face craned towards him.
“He’s trying to bite my face!” Sean laughed and screamed.
She lifted the little one and placed him on his feet, facing her.
“No bite,” she said. “Davy, no bite.”
“Bite,” said Davy, nodding his head.
“No bite,” she repeated, emphasizing no.
But he echoed the “bite,” not the “no.”
“No bite, Davy,” yelled Sean. “No. Bite.”
Davy pulled free and jumped at Sean, growling as Sean screamed and leapt onto the couch and then off the couch with a bang before sprinting for his room and slamming his door so hard a picture could be heard falling from one of his walls. Davy made it to the doorway and began to wail, not understanding why his big brother had stopped playing with him.
“Sean, do not slam your door like that again,” she yelled. “Davy,” she said, trying to lift him up as he flailed, tossing his head back and throwing his arms out, “your brother is not going to play with you if you bite.”
“Bite,” said the little one and chomped down on his mommy’s cheek.
“Fuck!” she shouted, pushing his mouth from her face and stepping into her bedroom where she dropped the little body onto the bed. “No, Davy. No. You don’t bite. No.”
“No,” said Davy, “No, No, No.” He shook his finger at his mom, repeating NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, as she walked down the hall.
“Is that my phone?” she said.
It was. She had a text. It was her husband: “Picked up overtime. Working the overnight. Be home am. Sorry. I love you.”
“Really,” she said. “Not now.”
She could have cried, but she didn’t want to be melodramatic. Her husband had worked all day and now was going to work through the night. She texted back: “ok, love you”.
She threw the phone onto the breakfast bar and sat in her corner, crossing her legs and taking out a scarf she was working on. The patter of feet soon came down the hall. Sometimes she imagined she was back in her classroom with her students. She’d pretend they were having a Socratic discussion and they were talking about her life. She’d pose a question, and wait.
“So what about the noises in the wall? What do you make of that? We know literally it’s some sort of animal, probably a mouse, but it seems like there is something else going on here. She can’t get away from the sound and it’s obsessing her, so we know it’s important to the story in some way. So, what’s really going on here? … Michael, go ahead. And then Diane and Josh.”
“I’m not sure what’s going on in her mind or anything, if that’s what you mean, but I did notice that the wall is yellow, and that reminds me of that other story we read, about the wallpaper,” Michael said.
“Wow, that’s a great connection Michael. I didn’t notice that. Why do you think we have that allusion?”
“What does allusion mean?”
“Can someone tell Michael what allusion means?” Blank faces until Liz raised her hand.
“I think it means. Well, I’m not sure. But I think it means when you see something that’s not there,” she said.
“Good try. But you’re thinking of illusion. An allusion is when a writer refers to some other story or some other work in their own work. Think about a song where the singer has a line that’s like a shout out to some other song.” She gauged their faces and felt they understood.
“So, what do you think, Michael? Why do you think we have this allusion to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?”
But Michael’s attention had drifted and she could see he was glancing down at his lap. “Put your phone away,” she said. He looked back up saying, “I don’t know.”
Other times, she had more fruitful conversations when she pretended she was on Fresh Air being interviewed by Terry Gross. “I’m not sure I have a question here,” Gross would say, working her way into some insightful observation. “But you live by an air force base, right?”
“Yes, I do,” she said, waiting to hear the connection Gross was about to make.
“And fighter-jets fly over your house and it happens sporadically, you never know when they are going to come roaring above, and when it does, you feel like the sky is shaking and whipping your house.” Gross paused. “And yet this has become normal for you. It’s like background noise. But those other noises, the ones in your wall. They take up so much of your thoughts. You’ve called exterminators, right?
“I have. But they said it was not mice, most likely some kind of critters like flying squirrels.”
“Ok, and you called in that wild-life guy and he came and said it wasn’t flying squirrels or some other critters but most likely a mouse. None could hear the noise. And when your husband gets home, you don’t tell him about the kids or your day, you just talk about the noises in the wall, and how they’re getting louder and how they have moved out of the bedroom and you can now hear them in the living room. Again, I don’t think I have a question here. I’m just wondering about how these jets that pass right above your house and how you barely notice them and …”
“And how I obsess about a sound that seems so small in comparison?”
Gross didn’t answer, allowing me to answer the question she led me into.
“Well, I’m not sure, Terry. But I think it has to do with not knowing. I know what the sounds are in the sky. And yes they’re loud, but I know exactly what they are. I can say to my baby— ‘Plane!’ and point up at the sky. But I don’t know what’s in the wall. I just hear the tiny claws skittering and tiny teeth chewing.”
Gross didn’t respond, just let my answer hang for a moment, and then she spoke: “OK, one last question. You don’t have to answer this if it’s too personal. But as I hear your story, I’m wondering why you just don’t go back to work. You have a career, you have a degree. Your husband isn’t forcing you to stay home.”
“No, he’s not.”
“So why not go back? If staying home is so hard, no one is keeping your there.”
“It’s a good question, Terry. And I ask myself the same question, and believe me sometimes I think about going back to work, around the clock.”
“But it’s hard, Terry. I had the eldest, Sean, in daycare, and I hated leaving him there. I hated leaving him with a woman whom I barely knew. I would cry all the way to work. My co-workers told me it would get easier, but for me it never did. I tried it for two years and it just hurt too much.”
“But, it seems to me that staying home isn’t easier either,” Gross said.
“No, it’s not, Terry. And I don’t know which is easier or which is harder. But, I do like being home sometimes. I know it’s hard to see. But right now, for example, Davy started to say his own name, and he is forming these tiny sentences. ‘Davy sit,’ he says, and ‘Davy go’ and ‘Davy pee-pee.’ He’s learning how to speak and I’m watching it happen. I don’t want to miss that and have some stranger tell me about it, Terry. And besides, right now, work seems far away. I’ve been gone for three years.”
“But that’s not very long,” Gross said.
“Maybe, but it feels far away.”
“Mom, who are you talking to?” asked Sean, seeing me mumble to myself in my corner.
“No one,” I said. “Just talking to myself, Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.”
A scratching inside the wall.
“Did you hear it?” she said, spinning towards the wall. “Did you hear the noise in the wall? They’re in the living room. Did you hear it?”
Sean shrugged. “Maybe,” he said.
She walked to the wall and pressed her ear against it. She remembered how the wild-life guy said she could be hearing “artificial” sounds: trees brushing against the siding or pipes rattling or the furnace kicking on.
“It’s not artificial,” she said.
“The sound,” she said. “It’s real. Something’s in there and we’re going to get it.”
“What?” asked Sean.
Davy was now standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She walked by him, grabbed a steak knife from the drawer, and then returned to the wall.
“What are you doing mom?” Sean asked.
“We’re going to find out what’s making the noise in the wall?”
“Are you going to cut a hole in the wall?” asked Sean.
“I don’t think Daddy will like that,” said Sean.
“Well, Daddy doesn’t have to hear the critters running through the walls all day, does he?”
“But we do. So we’re going to see what’s making the noise.”
She placed the tip of the knife to the spot where she heard the noise and pressed. It stuck into the sheetrock. She pressed harder and felt it pass through the wall and between the studs. She pulled it out and pink insulation came with it.
“It looks like the stuff in Davy’s doll, the one that lost its arm.”
She didn’t answer.
She slid it back in the slit she made and began to saw out a square. She then pried the square out with the knife. “What’s in there, mom?” Sean whispered as Davy stepped closer.
She nervously poked the papery exterior of the insulation with the knife, expecting some animal to jump at her or a stream of mice to pour over the hole into the living room.
“Where is it?” she said after a moment, stabbing the pink stuffing with her knife.
“Where’s what, Mommy?”
Davy was now pressing his face to her thigh.
“Whatever’s making the noise, Sean,” she said. She gently moved Davy away and grabbed a fork from the kitchen. She forked the insulation out, looking, but nothing.
“Maybe it ran back into the bedroom,” she said.
“Are you going to cut holes in there, too?”
“Yes, we are,” she said, lifting Davy and walking down the hallway.
“I think I’m going to watch my shows,” Sean said, going to the couch and opening the laptop.
Davy grabbed the fork from her hand. “Davy fork.”
“No, momma’s,” she said.
“Davy,” he screamed.
“Let go of the fork, Davy. That’s dangerous. Hot! Hot!” she said.
“Hot,” he parroted, still pulling it towards him.
She made it to the bedroom and peeled his fingers off, sitting him on the bed, and, realizing she left the steak knife by her knitting bag, she ran back in to get it. Davy was now screeching a high-pitched wail that could make the neighbor’s boxer howl.
“Mom, Davy’s crying,” Sean yelled, as she walked by him heading back to the bedroom.
“Ok, mommy just has to do something,” she said upon returning to Davy, who was standing and screaming in the middle of the bed.
This time, she pushed the knife right through the wall and quickly sawed out a rectangle. Nothing. She put her ear to the wall.
Crick, crick, crick … Crick, crick.
Little claws, there. She stabbed the knife into the spot and popped the next square out.
“Shit,” she said. “Please. Where the fuck?”
“Fuck! Davy fuck!”
“No, no, don’t say that. Please, no. Davy. Not that.”
The little boy stared at his mommy standing in front of the yellow wall with a steak knife in her hand and two jagged holes behind her, each filled with pink stuffing. She sat down. “Please,” she said. “Please.”
The next morning she woke to the clattering of dishes in the kitchen. She didn’t open her eyes, just listened to her husband clean the mess she had left. She wondered if he knew about her notebook, where she kept information on the taxes, emergency phone numbers, the monthly bills, the weekly menus, shopping lists, the boy’s medical information, all their checkups, all their immunizations. All the things that go unnoticed.
“Shit,” she said, opening her eyes and looking at the wall—poked with holes and white sheetrock dust at its base.
She got up and put on her purple slippers and walked into the kitchen.
“How was the night?” she asked.
“Long,” he said. He hated overnights. They were long and boring with eruptions of action, and then long and boring again.
“Sorry about the dishes,” she said, walking over to him. He turned and kissed her and then returned to washing the dishes.
He said it was ok, but with each dish he cleaned and dried and then with each thing he picked up off the floor—the half eaten apples, the cardboard cutouts, the dried Play-Doh, the glove, the sock—with each thing he placed in a drawer or threw in a toy bin or dumped in the trash, she felt his silent anger grow alongside her incompetence.
“It just starts to feel like the house is caving in on us,” he said.
“Believe me,” she said, “I know.”
“The kids are still asleep,” he said.
“Yeah, I was trying to take advantage,” she said, waiting a moment. “John,” she said.
“I have to show you something.”
She walked him into the living room and stood by one of the holes.
“You cut a hole in the wall,” he said.
She didn’t answer.
“Jenny, I told you I’d lay traps.”
“But you haven’t and the noises are getting louder and they’re spreading moving into Davy’s room and the living room.”
“And what’s cutting a hole in the wall going to do?”
“I just needed to see.”
“What are you going to see with one hole?”
She just looked at him.
“Shit, Jenny. Where?”
“In the bedroom.”
She showed him the other holes and he remained silent as he looked into them, moving the insulation around with his fingers. “You didn’t find anything, did you?”
“I’ll fix it, but I’m tired now and I need to sleep.” He walked away to the bathroom and she could hear the shower turn on.
When he woke, he placed mouse traps throughout the basement, where the foundation meets the studs, just as the exterminator had told him to do, and sure enough he started to kill mice. Each time he got one, with its back flattened by the metal hammer, he’d bring it to her.
“Another sacrifice to the mommy god,” he joked.
“I don’t want to see them, John.”
He kept catching them and bringing them to her and then it ended on a sunny day in March. A few days earlier he had plastered all the walls, leaving white band-aid patches on the yellow wall. Jenny was sitting on the edge of the concrete patio gazing out onto the backyard where her children played.
She was staring at the fence that the neighbors had put up to keep their boxer in. But the dog was some kind of escape artist and would dig holes under the fence, flatten itself and pop out into their backyard. They had no fence and the boxer would go, darting down the driveway and then the street, disappearing. They’d chase him down and block up the new hole. She noticed that they had stuffed some sort of children’s toy—a large, orange plastic truck?—into the most recent escape route.
She turned away and lifted her face and placed it into the sunlight. She felt the warmth soak into her skin, making her stomach tingle. The sliding glass door opened.
“The traps are empty,” her husband said. “It’s been more than a week. I think I got them all.”
She didn’t turn around.
“Have you heard them?”
“No,” she whispered.
“I haven’t heard them, John.”
He sat down on the step just outside the sliding glass door, looking at his wife’s back. Acorns were scattered across the concrete. He grabbed one and tossed it at his wife. It missed, passing over her head. She watched it bounce over the yard, which was spongy from melting snow.
She lifted her face back into the sun. He threw another. This one skimmed her shoulder, and Sean, now watching, waited for her to respond, but she didn’t. John threw one more and it struck her directly on the bump of her spine, shooting a pinprick of pain to her brain.
“Mom, dad’s throwing acorns at you,” Sean said, laughing a little.
“I know,” she said, but she couldn’t take her face out of the sunlight.
She listened as the door opened and then closed.