PHOTO STORIES – Wall Don’t Run by Tod Wodicka
Part of the Photo Stories series co-edited by Clare Wigfall. Authors work from a photograph to produce a story of about 1000 words.
‘Have you seen it?’ I asked.
‘Why exactly are you calling, again?’
‘At Mom’s. Tell me you’ve seen it.’
The telephone made the sound of a distant hot-air balloon, cord pulled, fire gasping upwards. That my sister and a telephone could collaborate to produce such a sound loosened a small, hard crumble of anxiety in me. I switched ears. ‘Oh, that,’ she said.
‘That,’ I said.
Because ‘that’, as we came to call it during the troubling few months it grew at the bottom of the stairs, was not right. ‘That’ was wrong. It was hazardous for one thing, a tree for another, a tree, golden or bronze depending on the sun (we never touched it, never established exactly what species of metal it’d been formed from), and howlingly inexplicable: a magical, oyster-leafed thing lurking there at the bottom of the stairs.
A nagging pocket of mystery had suddenly opened up in the one place we thought immune to such complications. Were goblins involved? Wood fairies? The Japanese? The creepiest thing being, of course, that ‘that’ was never mentioned, not once by our mother, a woman who would stop casual acquaintances, Super K-Mart check-out girls, say, or neighborhood dog-walkers, and tell them what she was just then thinking about doing with the tiles in the upstairs bathroom. Mom, we’d joke, had long-since actually become our old house, or at least its emissary, its long-suffering curator. But ‘that’, above all, was not funny. Shouldn’t we disapprove? In all seriousness, those leaves could have ripped your face off.
I’d often check in on it, excuse myself from dinner, walk down the hall past a wall of tiny photographs, bluish behind glass, like prison tattoos or miniature aquariums, and I’d stand looking down at ‘that’ before returning to the table, snapping my eyebrows at my sister or her husband or my girlfriend. They knew. Sometimes they’d smile, but more often a tight darkness followed in my wake, one you couldn’t pretend was entirely ironic.
Nobody ever fell down those stairs on my mother’s watch. Not me, not my sister, not any of my mother’s official husbands or any of their children from previous marriages, five or six of whom passed through our home during my childhood, mainly on weekends. WALK DON’T RUN, said the sign my mother put up at the top of the stairs one particular year. Some of these step-children came from Out of State, and sometimes they’d spend the whole summer with us, significantly magnifying their chances of breaking their neck on the stairs. I developed the impression that children from Out of State should be lightly pitied and propped-up whenever possible, told about reading and how many grams of sugar were acceptable in a breakfast cereal. Once a step-sister changed the ‘K’ in ‘WALK’ to an ‘L’, and then kept changing that ‘K’ to an ‘L’ (sometimes with a green crayon, once with what looked like ketchup) every time my mother placed a fresh sign in its place. I don’t think this was ever openly discussed. She didn’t return the following summer.
More to the point: nobody ever even got hurt at the house, not once, not to my knowledge. No broken bones, no stitches, no lacerations or removed tonsils or burst appendixes or even that much of the normal childhood wear-and-tear vomiting or fevers or soar throats. I’ve never been stung by a bee or had a brush with poison ivy. My sister has never had a cavity.
Is that what bothered us so much? A stunning, tasteless breach in safety protocol in the safest place in the world? Was our mother finally losing it? It couldn’t only have have been poor aesthetics.
My sister was pregnant. My girlfriend would be soon. Things were changing and it could be that Mom felt she finally deserved it, a real trip to the hospital, her very own goodness-me medical emergency to test her motherly mettle on before age turned her into the one to be fretted over. Was this a regret of hers? That none of us managed to meet her horrific worries head-on? Or was ‘that’ simply some kind of controlled, homeopathic cure for whatever disasters might be awaiting us grown-up children when she was unable or unwilling to place or replace the helpful signage all around us? Did she think if she sliced one of our feet on an ill-placed, magical metallic tree, we’d be immune to terrorism or Swine Flu? Why couldn’t she talk about this with us, her children? Talk to us, please! Seriously: what the hell?
I imagined a new room emerging in our old home. A place where one might hang a shot-gun or stuff an owl or mount the glass-eyed head of something dead above dusty, gold mirrors: anything, suddenly, was possible. Was her vision of the house also growing so esoteric? Did something need to be placated? She’d stopped dying her hair and had recently begun to hang Early American kitchenware on the wall as if in preparation for some sudden gravitational shift and the picnic that would follow. Antique cutlery, rusted ladles, probable farm implements, ceramic plates and pots and a few prehistoric saws that someone had painted fearfully nondescript landscapes onto. Was she arming herself or us?
Then, two days after her first grandchild was born, it was gone.
I don’t think that the house or our mother were ever the same. But nothing was. Just like that: gone. There was a space opened now, a new place where anything could be pulled through at any time, a tactile abandonment hovering there at the bottom of the stairs, an invisible sign, Mom’s final message: there’s nowhere that you’re really safe and I’m kind of sorry for having pretended otherwise.
Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, ALL SHALL BE WELL; AND ALL SHALL BE WELL; AND ALL MANNER OF THINGS SHALL BE WELL, published by Jonathan Cape and Vintage in the United Kingdom. It was short-listed for The Believer Book of the Year 2008. He was born in upstate New York in 1976 and currently lives in Berlin, Germany, where he is working on his second novel for Jonathan Cape, THE HOUSEHOLD SPIRIT, and a memoir/manifesto entitled THE MONOLINGUISTS’ GUIDE TO LIVING ABROAD. His writing has appeared in The Guardian and The New Statesman.