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A Hole in the Wall

Clifford Garstang, Fiction

Aloysius wields the sledgehammer like a baseball bat, banging a crater into the drywall. He swings it a second time, up, like a golf club, then down. He pictures a face on the wall, his ex-boss at his ex-law firm, and obliterates it with a dead-on swing. The room shakes, white chunks land at his feet, dust fills his nose and clings to his glasses.

He pulls the drywall away, expecting to find insulation underneath, and exposes bare brick instead. He lifts the hammer again, sees a face in the mottled brick he takes to be his father’s, features he has only imagined on a man he’s never known, and swings again. He pictures Erika, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, her profile in the cracked mortar, and blasts a hole in the wall. Air and light rush in. Bricks clack down three stories to the alley pavement.

He had purchased the tri-level condo directly from the developer after he and Erika split. In a corner of the Lower Shaw neighborhood, a multi-racial enclave on the rise, it was a steal, and he’s beginning to understand why. He had had big plans for the place: a bright kitchen with gleaming new appliances, an expanded bathroom in the basement, a balcony upstairs, off the master bedroom. He’d been going to paint the dining room—he had a pale green in mind, the same color his mother’s had been, not that he harbored fond memories of that house—and he’d made it as far as retrieving paint samples from Home Depot. He’d intended to buy all new furniture—a bedroom suite, a sofa and matching armchair—and heard from a colleague at work, a woman whose family had lived in Georgetown for three generations, that Crate & Barrel was a good store. But when he visited their glossy Tysons Corner showroom he was shocked by the prices, and by the platinum-haired saleswoman who as much as told him that a young black man might be more comfortable shopping at Grand’s or another discount furniture seller. As a result, he has painted nothing and bought nothing, and still sleeps in a sleeping bag on the floor, cooks on the vintage stove, eats his meals standing up in the dark, drab kitchen.

Although he’s lived in Nanking Mansion two months—three?—he’s met few neighbors. There’s the paint-smeared artist who wouldn’t shake his hand and the arm-locked couple who barely glanced at him as he was moving in. At least the girl smiled. And except for the unit next to his, he hasn’t been inside any of the other apartments. His cell phone had died and service in the condo hadn’t been turned on, so he knocked on his neighbor’s door to call Verizon. He’d been admitted by a Chinese man who showed him to the phone, and while he waited to be connected to a human being at the phone company, the man and his two little boys, one a toddler and one not much older, eyed him like wary mice watching a hawk.

Aloysius stares through the hole in his wall. The Washington monument peeks over the trees, and, if he shifts to the right and angles his head just so, he sees the radiant Capitol dome. He moves closer, his head nearly inside the hole, as if tempting a lion, and looks down into the alley, with its drifts of Styrofoam peanuts, wind-strewn leaves, yellowed newspaper, and who-knows-what-manner of urban detritus. This will be his view when the balcony is finished. Simple enough to manage: he’ll keep his head high, ignore what lies below. He leans the hammer against the wall, waves the hanging dust cloud from his face, and rests.

The phone rings. He gazes across the room at the machine on the floor, its cord looping to the wall, and lets it ring. He never answers the phone, a habit he learned from Erika, who had screened all their calls, never anxious to speak to her hypochondriac mother or, worse, his mother. She, invariably, would be looking for drugs or money to buy drugs, and Erika had no sympathy. When the ringing stops he hears his own voice, tinny and distant: “This is Aloysius. Just Aloysius. No one else. Please leave a message. For Aloysius.” The machine beeps, and he waits, but there is only silence and a dead click.

As he always does when this happens, he runs through a list of who might have been calling. His office? Not likely. There are dedicated souls at his new firm, O’Fallon & Goldstein, government regulatory lawyers who work late during the week and even put in full days on Saturdays. He’s one of them. But on a Sunday afternoon, other than Mr. O’Fallon himself, the place is deserted. The saner workload had been one of its attractions, and reason number two (right behind his maniacal boss) for leaving his old firm. His wife? Estranged wife, he corrects himself. Erika only calls to chastise him for some perceived slight, or to crow over the publication of her latest article, or an award she’s received. His sister? Also not likely. Although she lives just a few miles away, down in their old Anacostia neighborhood, he and Gwen haven’t spoken to each other in in at least three years, not since she got on his case for dating a white woman and then refused to attend their wedding. He hasn’t called to tell her about the separation, won’t give her the satisfaction. His mother? He hopes not. He can’t help her. With any kind of luck, his mother’s dead.

It’s a short list, not a happy one.

The sky is darkening outside the hole. He smells the thick, acrid odor of new tar—from the alley, or New York Avenue, or where?—and realizes how foolish he’s been. What was he thinking? Yes, the work needs to be done, it’s where the new balcony must go, and the contractors promised to be on the job first thing Monday. He’s arranged the morning off to let them into the building, get them started, and the job should be done by the time he gets home in the evening. But they’ll think he’s nuts for starting it without them, this lawyer in an empty condo who knows nothing about construction, who found a sledgehammer in the basement and came out swinging. And tonight? There’s a fucking hole in the wall. What’s he going to do tonight?

He’ll have to cover it. He has no plastic sheets, though, no tape, nothing. In his old place, the bungalow he and Erika own in Woodley Park, where she still lives, he’d run out to the corner hardware store for what he needs. But in this edge-of-a-war-zone neighborhood, where even the liquor store is boarded up, that’s not an option. He could ask one of the neighbors, the sculptor or the painter, or the Chinese man with the toddlers. One of them might have plastic or tarps. But he still barely knows these people and he’s in no mood to knock on doors, to explain himself. He’ll have to get in the car, cross the river and find a suburban strip mall, pray that stores are open on a Sunday night, maybe head back to Home Depot. But he doesn’t want to leave the hole. Not because he’s drawn to it. Not because holes hold any special meaning for him, although this one does remind him of a painting he admires in the National Gallery, with blue sky and puffy clouds over red brick—is it by Magritte? But it’s a fucking hole! Rats could get in. Bats. Or worse. It’s a stupid thing to have made, that hole. Stupid.

He paces, hoping for inspiration. He’s a practical man, resourceful. He overcame his background, a kid from Southeast D.C., pulled himself up, worked his way through law school. On track for partnership at a prestigious firm as long as he doesn’t get distracted. If there’s a problem, he can solve it.

When the solution, albeit a temporary one, hits him, he smiles.

He pulls towels from the bathroom cabinet and stuffs them in the hole. It takes three, loosely wadded, to fill the damn thing. Four, counting the one that glides down to the alley like a magic carpet.

When he gets out to the street, list in hand, and sees his Saab in a rare, prime spot right in front of the building, he changes his mind about the plastic and tape. He’s filled the hole. It’ll be fine. The contractors will come in the morning. He’ll feel foolish, but he’ll comfort himself by believing they’ve seen worse. Trash fires gone wild. Plumbing jobs turned flood. A hole isn’t so bad. He can live with the hole for one night.

The first thing he sees in the morning is light slipping through gaps between towels and brick. But sleep has eased the sting of embarrassment and he doesn’t feel quite as dumb as he did last night. The wall will be fixed today, by professionals, and no one will ever know. It’s not like it will hurt his chance to make partner. He won’t tell a soul. Or he might tell Erika, as a gift, something for her to feel superior about.

His brief foray into therapy had taught him that his residual fondness for Erika was normal. Besides, as he’d explained to his divorce lawyer, he’s not convinced their differences are truly irreconcilable. They used to communicate and now they don’t. Something’s gone missing. The fact that she wanted kids and he didn’t was only part of the story. But irreconcilable? Erika may think so. He’s not so sure.

He makes coffee. He stands at the kitchen counter eating a piece of toast, catching crumbs in his hand. The phone rings, too early for the usual suspects, and he considers answering it. But the machine picks up, and after his own voice, he hears the tentative stammer of the contractor.

“Um, Mr. Penn? This is Gordon Johnson from, um, Johnson Construction and I’m afraid we aren’t going to get out to your place today. If you could give us a call so we can reschedule…um, anyway. Thanks.”

Stupid. He’s going to have to live with the hole another day. At least. Stupid.

At Home Depot, he has tape and a plastic tarp in his hands when he wonders if the tape will stick to brick. He considers asking one of the clerks, but in his experience they’re all know-nothing amateurs and, anyway, he doesn’t want to explain why there’s a hole in his wall. Even an amateur would realize how foolish he’s been. If the tape works, fine. If not, he still has the towels.

Back home, when he pulls the towels out of the hole, another brick comes loose and drops into the alley. Stupid. He edges his head outside and is relieved that the brick hasn’t clobbered anyone. When he’s about to take measurements so that the plastic will be just the right size, pleased with himself that he’s taking action to deal with his problem, he notices the light blinking on the answering machine. It holds him motionless. He puts down the plastic, moves to the phone, and presses play.

“Al, it’s Gwen. Long time, huh? Listen, little brother, got your number from the white bitch. You know how much I loved that conversation. Al, honey, you didn’t even tell me ’bout you two. Didn’t give your own sister your new address. But that’s not why I called. Got some news. You’ve got my number.”

He wishes she’d just left the news in the message. Why couldn’t she do that? It’s what answering machines are for, especially when people aren’t speaking to each other. And that’s not just because of Erika. Gwen had started down the same road as their mother, once upon a time. She’d cleaned up and slipped. Cleaned up and slipped again. He’s been happy thinking of himself as an orphaned, only child. It suits him. He doesn’t want her in his life, and now he’ll have to call her. But not this minute. Right now, he has other problems.

He hears a faint knocking and realizes someone is at the door to his apartment. He takes a step, stops. The hole that he doesn’t want to leave untended tugs at him, but there’s the knocking again, louder, longer. He hurries downstairs.

It’s his Chinese neighbor, with both of the boys huddled behind. Aloysius remembers now, there’d been a wife—a white wife—the building’s developer had told him. They had that in common. She’s gone now. Dead. He tries to remember how.


“No school today,” says the Chinese man. Is his name Funchy? No, but something like that, unfamiliar, unpronounceable.


“The boys. No school today. I have work. I hear you. From next door.” He points. Aloysius begins to explain about the hole, but stops. He nods.

“You can watch the boys?” The man looks at his watch. “Until afternoon?”

He wants to protest. There’s no way he can do this, but suddenly the man is gone and the boys are inside his apartment, staring at him. What kind of man leaves his children with a total stranger? Not total, maybe, but still. Is that what they do in China?

He asks questions—why is there no school, who usually looks after them, what are their names, is the little one even old enough for school?—but the boys have no answers. He thinks they speak English—he recalls hearing them shout in the hallway and surely it was English he’d heard—but perhaps they don’t understand what he’s asked. And it now occurs to him that he has only arranged for the morning off, that he’ll need to call his office.

He remembers the hole. He directs the boys through the apartment toward the steps. They exchange glances when they see he has no furniture, which he supposes must seem odd to them. It is odd. Up they go and at the top of the stairs there is a breeze and a round stream of light, like a spotlight, pouring through the hole.

“Whoa,” says the older boy. “There’s a hole in the wall.” The boys run to examine it.

The three of them stand before the wall, the light shining on the boys’ faces, and there is a simultaneous flutter and coo as a pigeon alights on the edge of the hole.

“Cool,” says the older boy.

He explains to the boys the project he has in mind for covering the hole, but they don’t seem interested. The older boy—he finally tells Aloysius that his name is Simon and his brother’s name is Wesley—has been chewing gum and he now takes the wad from his mouth and throws it at the pigeon, who ducks but is otherwise unperturbed.

The phone rings and Aloysius listens for a message.

“It’s me,” says Erika’s voice. “Your delightful sister is looking for you. Thought you’d want to know.” Her tone is soft, gracious, not at all the meanness she’s capable of. She knows, he knows, that his sister’s call probably isn’t welcome, good news or bad. Erika’s a fine woman. Too proud sometimes, combative, but they’d had a good run. Dance clubs, jazz. That woman could move. He closes his eyes.

He opens them and the boys are staring at him again. The pigeon has now landed inside the room, is pecking at the hardwood floor, and there is another roosting in its place in the hole.

The boys laugh and chase the bird, who hops to stay ahead of them. The second bird is now inside, as well, strutting, pecking, cooing. Aloysius isn’t as disturbed by this intrusion as he thinks he would be if the kids weren’t there. For them it’s grand entertainment, and watching them chase the birds—they’ve split up now that the little one has his own bird to torment—is entertainment for him.

The phone rings again. This time they all turn to look at the machine. Even the birds seem to stop, to wait for the jangling interruption to end.

“Shit.” It’s Gwen’s voice. “I know you’re there. I called your damn office, so you better pick up the damn phone.”

He studies the faces of the boys to see if they react to the profanity. Their eyes are wide, but he suspects they’re more shocked by Gwen’s angry tone than by the actual language which they’ve possibly never heard. She’s bitter, her voice is like breaking glass, and just as sharp. She sounds sober, though, so that’s a plus.

The boys go back to chasing the pigeons. It occurs to Aloysius that if they join forces, the three of them might be able to drive the birds toward the hole and, with luck, the flying rats might find their way out before he has globs of birdshit all over the floor. He explains to the boys what he wants to do and they nod eagerly. All three move to the wall farthest from the hole, slide gingerly past the pigeons and join hands. They step forward together and the birds hop away, nearing the hole. They step again and the birds move again. They step a third time but the little one, Wesley, gets too excited and kicks at the birds, who launch into flight, one passing under the trio’s linked arms, one passing over. They start again, slowly, and this time they succeed in maneuvering the birds close to the hole. Do they smell the fresh air? Do they see the sky? Do they sense that just through that bright opening are more of their kind? Another step forward and one of the birds takes off and disappears out the hole. The second bird looks confused, suddenly alone with these strangers. The three step forward again and now this one is gone, too. Aloysius cheers and the boys join him.

They help him pile the towels back into the hole. Then Simon says, “We’re hungry.” Aloysius doesn’t have much food in the house, but he puts bread in the toaster and locates margarine, cinnamon and sugar, with which he concocts two slices of cinnamon toast. He has no milk, but he does have orange juice. He drinks coffee and the three of them have a makeshift picnic on the floor of the cavernous living room.

After their success herding pigeons, the boys seem more comfortable with him and they answer questions. Simon is in kindergarten, Wesley in pre-school. But not today. They aren’t sure why not today. Aloysius knows the mother is gone, but he hesitates to ask about her. He doesn’t have to.

“Our mother is dead,” says Simon. “She had an accident.”

“But she’s coming back,” says Wesley. He says it with confidence, as if repeating words he has learned, but then looks at his big brother. He tilts his head, eyes welling. “Isn’t she?”

Simon nods, but in his eyes Aloysius sees understanding, a depth of awareness that he recognizes and is sure the boy won’t articulate. And Aloysius knows, too, that they don’t come back. Even when they’re not dead. They walk out, they don’t say goodbye, and they’re never heard from again. They leave a void, and that void never gets filled.

Snack time over, they return to the hole. With the help of Simon—while Wesley watches, distracted by a strip of duct tape Aloysius has given him—he unrolls the plastic, measures a square, cuts, and tapes it over the hole. The tape adheres to the brick better than he expects and the plastic holds firm. They stand back to admire their work, Simon’s hands on his hips in imitation of Aloysius.

Wesley has managed to stick his strip of tape on his hair and is struggling to get it off. Aloysius kneels at the boy’s side and tugs on the tape, but all he does is pull Wesley’s hair. The boy shrieks and emits a string of choking sobs, on the threshold of a wall-piercing wail. Aloysius picks him up, holds him in his arms, and the sobs subside. Downstairs he tries again to pull the tape free, gently this time, but it doesn’t budge. Erika would know what to do, he realizes. She’s good with kids. He’s seen her with her sister’s brood. But he’s clueless. There are scissors in the utility drawer in the kitchen and with a warning to Wesley to sit still, that scissors are sharp and dangerous and should be handled carefully—advice he has no recollection of having received when he was a child—he cuts the tape free, along with a substantial clump of Wesley’s dark-but-not-quite-black hair. Simon laughs when he sees it. Aloysius laughs, too, and hopes this won’t start Wesley crying again, so he picks the boy up one more time and carries him into the downstairs bathroom, showing him the jagged mess that is the side of his head. And now Wesley laughs.

The morning has passed. Aloysius looks at his watch twice because he can’t quite believe it. He allows himself to admit that he’s enjoyed being with the boys and wonders what would have happened if he and Erika had had children after all. Would they still be together? Would that have been enough? Or would it have snuffed whatever spark they’d felt? Would life now just be even more miserable and complicated while they battled over custody and money, and ruined their children’s lives as well as their own?

There’s nothing else in the house to eat, but he pours more juice. He shows them how to wash the glasses, although this is something they already seem to know, even Wesley, whom Aloysius has perched on a stool—too precariously, he realizes—so the boy can reach the sink. When there’s a knock on the door, they all turn their heads.

It’s their father, he expects. He’s almost sorry that his time with them is over, but he has things to do. He never got around to calling the contractor, or his office. He didn’t call Gwen. He doesn’t move, and the knock comes again.

When he opens the door, there is the boys’ father standing next to Gwen. Aloysius can’t speak. How does his Chinese neighbor know his sister? Is this what she was trying to tell him?

Grinning now, the man holds out a bottle. The label is gold, with Chinese writing.

“Thank you. Please take wine. Thank you.” The boys’ father leaves the bottle in Aloysius’s hands and summons Simon and Wesley, who slip past Gwen into the hall. Aloysius wants to explain what happened to Wesley’s hair, but it’s too late. The boys wave and disappear into their own apartment.

“What were you doing with those China boys, brother? Is there something you ain’t telling me?” Gwen’s smirk is the customary half-smile, half-sneer he remembers. Her skin is mostly clear, but there are traces of old meth damage on her cheeks, scars that are slow to heal. Her hands rest on her substantial hips. Weight gain is a good sign, he thinks. She smells of cigarettes, though, and as soon as he realizes that’s what the odor is, she reaches into her handbag, pulls out a pack and her lighter.

“You and the white girl split?” She strides into the apartment.

“You talked to Erika.” He’s thinking about the hole upstairs, the thin sheet of plastic that covers it, how fragile it seems.

“I knew it was a mistake.”

“So you said.”

“But you did it anyway.”

“Is that why you’re here? To tell me I fucked up? Like you’re such a great role model.” He looks at his watch, hoping she’ll take the hint. He assumes there’s news about their mother. Why else would she bother? He folds his arms, waits. But Gwen can’t be rushed. When they were kids, she’d known what he wanted or what their mother wanted, and managed to do exactly the opposite. It’s a gift. No reason to think she’s lost it.

“Not just that.” She spins around the room, as if looking for a place to sit. She snorts and shakes her head, and stops in the middle of the empty space. She glowers, eyes narrowed. Her nose flares. She lights her cigarette and smoke erupts toward the ceiling.

Aloysius hears the flutter of wings upstairs. The birds are back, despite the plastic. Gwen doesn’t seem to notice.

“He came to see me,” she says.

It’s like the phantom phone calls. Who? He runs through the possibilities, but he knows so little about his sister’s life these days that he can barely begin. Gwen’s not married, there are no ex-boyfriends he knows about. Ex-dealers maybe. But he’s not going to ask. Let Gwen have her drama. He goes to the window and opens it, taking his mind back to the hole upstairs. He expects to see Gwen’s smoke rush out, sucked into the ether, maybe her along with it. But it lingers over their heads, like a curse.

“Aren’t you going to ask who?”

“No time for games, Gwen.”

She holds her cigarette at an angle, its ash precariously long. There are no ash trays, no potted plants. She holds out her palm but appears to reconsider and comes to the window, tossing the cigarette outside into the litter-filled alley. She waves her hands in the air as if she can disperse the cloud she’s unleashed. The smoke swirls and the cloud reforms.

He leans back against the wall, hands in his pockets. The fluttering upstairs comforts him. He hears Simon and Wesley laughing in the hallway. They’re cooing, imitating the birds.

“All right. You win. Who came to see you?”

Gwen’s arms are folded across her chest. “Our father,” she says, as if beginning a prayer. Now she looks at her watch. “Guess what? He wants to see his boy, and I was only too glad to give him your new address. In fact, if my timing’s as lousy as usual I’d say he’s due here any minute.” She’s already at the door when she reaches into her purse and pulls out a business card. “This is him. I’ve got no use for it.” She tosses the card on the bare floor, where it spins on one corner like a top. And she leaves.

From where he stands there is a glare on the card, making it appear radiant, its own source of heat. He knows it’s an illusion, like the reflected light of the moon.

He picks it up, tucks it into a pocket, and heads back upstairs. He has calls to make, the day is nearly gone, and he needs to get things under control. As he climbs the stairs he remembers that the pigeons have returned. They coo and flap their wings at his approach. When he gets to the top he sees them, a dozen or more strutting, pecking, looking, searching. A breeze carries the tar scent through the hole and ruffles the dangling tape and plastic where his improvised window has fallen to the floor.

The phone rings. It’s the contractor. They want to schedule a time to do the work on his balcony. But now he’s having second thoughts about the balcony. The view back there isn’t so great, vacant buildings and a trash-strewn alley. It might be dangerous. It might hurt resale value. Prospective buyers who have children wouldn’t like it. The whole idea has gone sour.

The phone rings again. After he hears his own recorded words once more, there is a pause.

“Aloysius?” The voice on the machine is rough and hoarse, an abused instrument. He doesn’t recognize it, and yet he knows who it is. “Your sister gave me this number. I want to talk to you, son. I was going to drop by, but… We’ve got some catching up to do, you and me. I know…” The voice trails off and he thinks the message is over, but then it’s back. “Anyway,” it says, and leaves a number.

Aloysius asks, as if the pigeons could tell him, “Why now?” The man has been gone since forever and now, today, when he gets the tiniest taste of what it means to be a father, the asshole shows up. Reminding him what fathers do. They disappear. They beat their wives and their daughters and sons and they sell dope and they walk out. They cause pain. They ruin lives.

He pulls the card from his pocket. There was a time, a long time ago, when he wondered about the man. What he was like. What he did. A very long time ago. He doesn’t look at the card, doesn’t want to know what it says. He drives the pigeons toward the hole, wishing the boys were there to help. But even alone, weaving in an arc around the birds, he moves them. One by one they find the hole and leave. Until there is only one bird left. The pigeon cocks its head and assesses him, as if taking the measure of this man who has blasted a hole in this wall and forsaken fatherhood. And then it takes flight, into the sky beyond.

He watches the bird soar and disappear into the glint of the sun off the Capitol dome. The card is still in his hand, the telephone just feet away. He thinks of his wife, of the life they had, what could have been. He reaches through the hole in the wall, holds his hand steady, feels the soothing breeze on his arm, and lets the card fall. It flutters and spins and drifts and, finally, comes to rest in the chaos of the world.