If These Walls Could Talk

Fiction
Rita Pecos


Photo Credit: teofilo/Flickr (CC-by)

If these walls could talk, they would have a deep, booming voice. They would speak for the house and do his bidding. They would tell you that the name of the house in which they stand is Roak, so named by the first family that lived there. When the father built the house they had six children. The third born, Terry, who was six years old, had asked where they were moving to and the father had said, “To the new O’Rourke house.” Terry had repeated it, “The new Roak house,” and the name stuck, magically linking the father and Roak for all time. Through the years the family grew to 12 children and they filled the house with their lives.

Roak witnessed all family discussions and meals. He quietly observed the family; he watched their daily activities and witnessed their arguments. He even painfully tolerated their abuse of one another. He was long tempered and compassionate. He was sturdy and dusty, yet he smelled of popcorn, bacon, and bizcochitos, with a hint of tobacco and coffee.

Roak stood proudly on the corner of Comanche and Palomas in the high desert of the sunny southwest at the very edge of the city limits. With windows for eyes, Roak watched the children play in the yard, and the mother prepare her family’s meals, which the family shared over long conversations and debates. He had eyes in every room, in every window. He watched the family’s budding sycamore tree grow to towering heights and magnificent width. He could see all the way into the Albuquerque valley from the living room window and he had a lovely view of the Sandia Mountains from his own kitchen eyes.

From the living room he watched many soccer and football games in the park across the street, that is, after the city finally built the park. Prior to that it was all mesa as far as his eyes could see, the only thing north of the house being Old Man Montgomery’s barren land. Often the children would walk westward, out onto the mesa, with a glass jar of water for hydration, pitch a tent and camp out. Roak could see only a speck in the distance to keep track of them, not having access to any pipes reaching out that far at the time. He worried about them, as Old Man Montgomery had been known to shoot at trespassers. It would not be beneath the children to taunt him.

Roak knew the family’s deepest, darkest secrets. He had witnessed their most intimate moments and he was the most trusted confidant, keeping holy all that was told to him in private. When he saw the children break the rules he felt sad, and sometimes mad, but he did not tell the parents. He never broke that trust within the world of humans. But he was the record-keeper for this family and was required to regularly report the goings on to the house council, cataloguing every detail.

There was much love in the house. Roak eagerly waited for the family to return from their frequent summer camping trips so that he could hear the stories of their hapless adventures. Like the year the family went to Hopewell Lake and returned with everything covered in mud. The father had decided to move the campsite to Lower Lagunitas, a tiny New Mexico mountain lake, pond really, set at an elevation of 10,400 feet. The father said the lake was accessible only by navigating a treacherous path that some had the gall to call a road. The father attempted to drive his old 1962 Blue Bird school bus, which he had converted into a camper, up this steep, precarious road. In dry conditions it would have been dubious; just to make things a bit more lively, and because the father attracted a certain kind of luck to his every endeavor, an explosive monsoon deluged the area. The father had one chain and put it on the right rear tire. Most of the family got out to help push the bus, including the myriad of cousins and friends the children had brought along, trying to keep it from sliding over the edge into the deep ravine. This story was told over and over again along with many others.

Roak particularly enjoyed the frequent slide shows the father hosted. All the family would sit in the living room, or on the back porch on cool summer nights, on metal folding chairs, eating popcorn and watching the slides the father lovingly prepared and organized. The family laughed and joked so loudly that Roak could laugh too, “Harumph!” and his noises would not even be noticed.

Roak also enjoyed the family’s Sunday night tradition; after a huge meal of fried chicken or rabbit—the latter of which the father raised himself—mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, and biscuits the family gathered in the living room and watched The Wonderful World of Disney. Roak enjoyed Old Yeller most of all. And no matter how full the family was from their feast, Roak was awestruck at how they still managed to eat mountains of popcorn, an aroma he loved dearly.

Roak rarely interfered with the family, but when he saw a strange man intent on harm darken the door late one night he groaned such a groan as to wake the father. “Katchoom!” he hollered in his deep booming voice. He only slightly bent house rules in that event and the father chased the evil man away. Roak had heard, through his network of pipes and electrical connections and his high standing with the house council, of houses that acted very strangely indeed, scaring and causing harm to families that displeased them, but these were rare instances. Roak disapproved of such behavior. One did not break house rules.

However, Roak opened his connections when Vivian practiced her violin, sharing the lovely sound through his party line of pipes with his neighborhood friends. They listened and hummed along as she played Brahms, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Bach, and they marveled at the progress and improvement she made over the years. He had a special connection with Vivian, the last born. There were rare individuals who could commune with a house. When Vivian was only six years old she walked inside the wall between the boys’ and girls’ bedrooms, which was not six inches wide as one would imagine, but more like a whole other room. She entered through the mirror in the girls’ room, mirrors being the doorway into the world of houses, and spent many hours playing there with her stuffed animals.

He knew the family history he documented would one day be transferred to her and she would tell the story to the world. Being the youngest, she could not know all that transpired before her birth, nor all that happened outside her awareness, but Roak could transmit messages to her through her dreams driving her to jump out of bed first thing in the morning and start writing.

In his reports, Roak admonished two of the younger boys, Dennis and Pat, for smoking pot in their bedroom; they foolishly think they are getting away with something, he dutifully reported, but the father and mother are simply too tired to do anything about this behavior. But, in truth, Roak secretly reveled in this, vicariously enjoying the high like a kite in the breeze.

The family often amused Roak. When Pat was a little boy, the hapless mother could not keep him in shoes. Roak learned that it was not that they could not afford shoes, it was that the incorrigible boy hated to wear them. “Please, get your shoes on,” the mother would holler for the umpteenth time. “You’re going to be late for school!”

“I can’t find them,” Pat would protest.

“Well, did you look for them?” Eventually she would shoe the boy and send him off to school. But occasionally he would get sent home for the egregious indiscretion of being barefooted. “Oh, they must think I’m a terrible mother,” she would cry, “sending you to school with no shoes. Where are your shoes?”

Roak wondered why the mother worried so much about shoes when she clearly had much bigger worries, what with Dennis chasing MaryKay down the hall with a butcher knife, having been pushed to madness by her constant teasing and ridiculing over his inability to read. And MaryKay occasionally using Roak against Theresa, like the time she slammed the bedroom door as Theresa chased her, and caught Theresa’s arm in the door during one of their frequent fights. That was going too far, Roak thought, there is no need to damage my parts, or hers.

One night, Roak watched when Kevin, at 18 years of age, came home drunk. He walked in the door, and scolded Theresa and Vivian for being up so late. He then staggered to his room and closed the door. The girls snickered. Minutes later Kevin came running out in his T-shirt and tighty-whities screaming, “The house is on fire! Get the kids out of the house! The house is on fire!” He ran outside, turned on the water hose and sprayed it into his bedroom through the broken window. He had struck a match on the window to light a cigarette and caught the paper thin curtain on fire. In an attempt to put it out he crashed his hand through the window, and when he pulled it back the shattered window ripped the skin off of his thumb and forefinger like a peeler on an unsuspecting potato.

Kevin ran back into the house, screaming again to get the kids out. Roak trembled in fear. By this time the whole family was awake; the floor was covered in water and Kevin’s blood, and he slipped and fell, weeping and hollering. He had succeeded in putting out the fire and saving the kids and the whole family, and Roak too. But his injury was serious and he never did regain the feeling in the tip of his thumb and forefinger. Roak never took his life for granted having escaped certain death that night.

Roak documented many happy times, before the alcohol took hold of the father. He told of neighbors, family, and friends who often sought the father’s advice. Once, the father, a simple journeyman pipe-fitter, as well as carpenter, welder, and jack-of-all-trades, taught a teenager next door two fundamental principles of fluid mechanics, the hydraulic paradox, and Torricelli’s theorem. While sitting at the humble kitchen table—a fourteen-by-six-foot piece of plywood, laid atop a Formica kitchen table, covered with a modest table cloth and sandwiched by two six-foot-long handmade wooden benches—the father described the complex concepts to the young man and sketched them out on the back of a napkin. The young man later became a civil engineer and occasionally put those principles to use impressing his colleagues, though he always gave full credit to the father. Neighborhood children sought solace at the O’Rourke house, too, knowing they would be welcomed, fed, housed for days if need be if their present circumstances were too unbearable to return to their own homes.

But, as the years wore on, the father increasingly snuck swigs of Jim Beam in the darkness of the garage, numbing his once-sharp intellect and ingenious creativity. During these heartbreaking years, Roak sadly watched as the father sat in his chair at the head of the kitchen table muttering incoherently to himself. Woe to the hapless family member who inadvertently walked into the kitchen at such times. Usually it was the naive mother. The father would pounce on her vulnerability, like a cat on a mouse, telling her she was fat, a lousy cook, or whatever popped into his shriveling mind. He was relentless, unaffected by her tears. Pat would often come to her defense, skirting dangerously, “Dad, why do you have to pick on her so much? She’s doing the best she can. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Roak knew, at least in part, why the father sought solace in the drink. Through their connections, all houses had access to the entire city and more, anywhere there was plumbing or electricity; they could even reach into the yards through water hoses and sprinkler systems to keep tabs on their particular family. Through this system he became aware of information he could not ignore, which sparked many heated arguments with the house council about the Queen of Heavenly Gates Catholic Church. When Vince, second-born child and first-born son, was an altar boy, he was hired to do yard work for the rectory, to help pay for his tuition. The mother and father were very pleased that their family would be honored in this manner, as the Catholic belief was this was a special privilege. When Terry was old enough he joined Vince and assisted with the work. On Terry’s first day, Vince instructed him, “If you ever see Father Purgot coming, I need you to climb this tree, hop the fence, and hightail it outta here.”

“Why?” Terry demanded.

“Just promise me.” Vince grabbed Terry by the collar and yanked his face close. “You run and don’t look back, no matter what! You understand me?” he hollered.

“Okay, okay!” Terry shook lose of Vincent’s grasp. “Geez, you don’t have to get huffy about it.”

“Now show me,” Vince insisted.

“What?”

“Do it!” Vince ordered, “Climb the tree and hop the fence so I can see that you can do it.”

Roak fumed. “Surely exceptions can be made,” he pressed the house council. “This priest must be punished!”

“And what would you have us do?” the house master countered. “You, sir, are not some naive cabin; you know what happens on this continent every day. We cannot interfere. Do you know what would happen if we did?” he queried. “Mayhem, that’s what!” he hollered at Roak, answering his own question. “No, we cannot consent. House rules,” he scolded. Roak shook so violently that he cracked the front walkway of the O’Rourke home in three places.

When Vince was arrested for indecent exposure at fifteen years of age, the father muttered to no one in particular, “Where did I go wrong?” He shook his head. “How did this happen?” Even with his sharp intellect it was beyond his skills to help his son or fathom why Vince started to behave in this way. The father’s only solace was tucked away in a dark corner of the garage in a brown paper bag.

When Terry left for his four-year stint in the army he saw his budding dreams of college and hopes of a successful career through bright blue eyes. He was clean-shaven, good-looking, gifted in math, and sociable. But when he returned, he, too, was changed, having suffered at a minimum a head injury from a car accident while serving. No one believed the accusations Theresa and MaryKay made. Only Roak saw him, now straggly-bearded and cloudy-eyed, staggering down the hall, dripping wax on the floor as he snuck into their bedroom. The next morning the mother would scold, “Who spilled wax all over my floor?”

He had watched this, his first family for 50 years. He had listened to their lectures and arguments, their confessions and problems and he felt helpless, for his help was forbidden. He could only creak or groan, moan or whisper when he wished to exaggerate a point.

When the drink finally caught up with the father, and he writhed in pain and vomited blood, Roak patiently waited and marveled at his ability to give it up for good. In what seemed like a miracle to Roak, the father transformed back into the loving husband and father that Roak fondly remembered and sorely missed. The family enjoyed many more happy and joyful years, but these golden years inevitably came to an end when the father became very ill with a sickness that, even with his fortitude, he could not combat.

The family cared for the father as best they could. His cancer raged. Like a mutant laryngitis it stole his speech, and his ability to eat and swallow. Roak watched the mother and grown children weeping, talking, comforting each other. He wished he could console them, comfort them, warm their hearts. In the throes of his illness the father neglected Roak. Autumn leaves lay on the ground where they fell. Cold air crept in through cracked windows. Broken cupboard doors hung loosely on their hinges. Roak missed the tender touch of the father’s gentle hands. The sons attempted to keep up with the repairs, but it was not the same to Roak.

Roak loved the father; he felt a kinship with him; like Roak, he was the wall all the other walls leaned on. Roak wept when he learned of the father’s impending death, the tears of the house staining the ceiling yellow above the stove. He watched the father as he walked in and out of the other world. Only Roak saw what the father saw, the long dead relatives, the white lights, the dark shadows, and the souls of the dead begging him for help.

One morning, the mother and Vivian were sitting at the kitchen table—now modern, yet simple, but store-bought—drinking coffee when Vivian said the words Roak loved to hear. “I love this old house, Mom.”

Roak beamed with pride; the overhead light glowed a little brighter.

“Me too,” the mother replied.

“Will you stay here?”

Roak waited anxiously for the response; the light grew dim.

“Oh, of course, I couldn’t leave. This is my home. This is where I belong.” Then she continued, “You know, Dad built this house when Joe was born. He built all the houses in this neighborhood.”

Vivian smiled a tender, patient smile. “Yes, this house will stand forever.”

Roak knew that, despite the mother’s intentions, there was a possibility that this family would leave him, and although he would be sad he would not interfere. He remembered the Salases, a family with five boys who lived down the street. On one of the frequent occasions that Mr. Salas beat his wife, the Salas house, known only to the house council as Palo123, did interfere, dropping a large mirror on Mr. Salas’s head. Roak, as general commissioner of the house council, understood why Palo123 did this, but it was against house rules. Roak issued an executive order and Palo123 was without electricity for a week, in spite of the efforts of the power company. Over the years Palo123 became a very dark and unhappy house and never attracted a loving family to shelter. No, Roak would not interfere with the father’s illness. He knew it would be futile to even ask permission.

The family had brought in hospice so the father could be in the presence of his family in his own home. There, they kept him comfortable with the flannel quilt the mother had made for him thirty years before. Roak remembered watching her make it, tediously, carefully matching each seam, lovingly crafting her gift to her husband.

The inevitable day came when the father passed away and Roak was there to watch as always. Roak wept again and this time his tears permanently stained the living room ceiling.

It was a source of pride for Roak that the solemn, yet joyful wake would happen inside of his walls and he glowed with warmth and love. Roak listened intently as Uncle Art told a legendary story about Dad and one of his poorly executed plans. “I loved your dad,” Uncle Art said, “he was a real sweetheart. But he could attract some of the worst luck I have ever seen. We were all going hunting, Uncle Frank, your dad, me, and several others. Your dad, being clever, decided to go early and get a good camping spot, get rested up and enjoy the day before the hunt. I was a little naive in those days and I thought that sounded like a good idea. Well, naturally it rained, and to get to the site, we had to climb a steep, muddy hill. I mean we worked all day to get the vehicle up the hill. We got stuck in the mud several times. Finally, we succeeded and set up camp. We settled in long before dark, and waited for the rest of the group to show up. We were feeling quite smug, and when they got there your dad kind of snickered, ‘They’re never going to get up that hill.’ But when the other group arrived they drove straight up without a snag. The mud had frozen solid.” Roak could not help himself; he let out a laugh, “Harumph!” as he heard this and other stories.

He felt tenderness at this family’s bittersweet grieving, and he felt helpless about the sorrow he sensed in them. He wanted to do something, then a very strange thing happened; the father spoke to him from the beyond.

“Roak, I need a favor,” said the father.

“Of course, anything.”

“Popcorn,” said the father.

The exhausted family sat at the dining room table quietly reminiscing about the father. It was already ten o’clock; it had been a very long day and some of the guests, aunts and uncles, mostly siblings of the father, still sat chatting and drinking coffee. “Quit serving them coffee,” Sheila told Eileen, “these people are never going to leave.” They shared a guilty laugh. Suddenly, they got a whiff of a very familiar scent. Joe mentioned it first.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

“What?”

“Someone’s popping corn,” he told his siblings.

“Yeah, I smell it, too,” Kevin replied. “I’m going to supervise and make sure they’re doing it right.” Kevin popped corn almost as good as the father.

“Mmm, it smells so good,” commented Sheila, and the others agreed.

A few minutes later, Kevin returned. “No one’s popping corn,” he said. “Must be the walls talking.”

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Rita Pecos hosts the monthly Prose Workshop for the Albuquerque Writers’ Workshop (AWW). She has been published in The Gnu, Bus Conversions Magazine, and Natural Harmony and has an MFA in Creative Writing from National University. She writes when she’s not working her day job, taking care of her aging mother, or subletting her spare rooms. Email: rpecos76[at]gmail.com