Friday, June 14, 2024



Al Bruno III

From my first day at the scrapyard, I had formed a friendship with Crenshaw. Perhaps it was because he found in me a kindred spirit; he had known the horrors of war, and I had my own terrors to bear. It was obvious that he had once been a muscular man, but time and circumstance had softened his physique and left his posture bent. His nose showed signs of having been broken more than once, and the skin of his clean-shaven head revealed a deep surgical scar that must have been decades old.

While our working days left us too tired to do more than go home and rest, Crenshaw and I frequently spent our Friday nights and take-home pay in the Town's lone tavern.

We would talk about one thing or another—sometimes, it was to laugh over some misadventure in the scrapyard; other times, it was to mourn the death of one of the stray dogs that had made its home there. We rarely touched on our personal lives and never discussed our pasts.

One day during work, Crenshaw approached me to ask for my help. He asked to see me when our shifts ended. When my day ended, I stopped by the trailer part to change into a fresh shirt and speak to Muriel, but she was busy with a client. So I shrugged and began the long walk to the northern side of Town. Crenshaw lived on the third floor of an old hotel that had been converted into low-rent dwellings.

I found his apartment easily—the third floor, the first door on the left. When I knocked, he answered immediately. The apartment's windows were closed, and the chemical aroma of paint that filled the room was dizzying. My friend was wearing his ordinary street clothes, and it was evident from the sight of them that he had been working for some time, but he had been doing so with far more speed than care. I stepped inside and saw a chaos of red, black, and green spread across the wall. Still, beneath those streaks of pigment, I could see garish wallpaper with a stylized jungle pattern.

I asked him the meaning of this, he explained, his eyes wild and frightened, "That damn wallpaper. I can't take it anymore."

"What's wrong with the wallpaper?"

"It's in the trees," he said, "you can see them sometimes. They think they're just out of sight, but I can tell. I could always tell; that's why they put me out on point."

Rather than question any further, I started helping him cover the walls, coats of one color after another, one color after another, until the wallpaper was completely obscured. When we finished, it was past one in the morning. With nothing better to do, we sat on the floor and shared some beers.

I asked, "How long has the wallpaper bothered you?"

"Ever since I moved here, but I can't afford anything like the boarding house you live in. My medicines cost too much," he looked around at the garishly colored walls, " squad used to go over the border into Cambodia. We weren't supposed to, but those were our orders. We were fighting kids. We were kids too, but they were younger than us, twelve years old and ready to kill."

There was nothing I could do but nod with understanding and help myself to another drink.

"We did things in the jungle, sometimes to survive and sometimes just because we could..." He stood, grabbed a drying brush, and began dabbing at the bits of wallpaper visible near the edge of the floor. "The things I did..."

"Why don't you just tear the wallpaper down?" I said.

The look he gave me was one of horror, "No. No. No!"

With that, I steered our conversation to pleasant and mundane matters. For instance, there was a new waitress at the diner who had just dropped out of high school and the new junkyard manager who happened to be the owner's son. Both of them were equally inept at their positions. From there, we moved on to world events, local crimes, and corruption, large and small. After that, we talked about hopes for the future. I talked about my plans to finish my degree, and he spoke about wanting to buy a van to make his way to California and see his long-lost son.

Then we were silent, both of us aware that neither of those dreams could ever come true. Neither of us had the means or courage to make even the smallest of our dreams come true. In the long, despairing silence, we finished the last of the beer.

It was four AM when I bid Crenshaw farewell and boozily made my way home. The Town was utterly silent that night, the only sound coming from my uneven footsteps on the cracked sidewalk. My thoughts were consumed with my friend's story and the desperation that seemed to permeate every aspect of his life. Everyone I had met in this Town had similar stories to tell. Was it true for everyone else? How many were quietly suffering and struggling to survive?

By the time I reached my apartment, exhaustion had set in. I considered knocking on Muriel's door to see if she wanted some company, but in the end, I went to my own trailer and fumbled with the keys until I could let myself inside. As soon as I closed the door behind me, I collapsed onto my lumpy bed and immediately fell asleep.

When I woke up three hours later, it was already past noon. My head throbbed from too much alcohol and not enough rest. Groaning, I dragged myself out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom to splash water on my face. For a moment, I felt like I was going to feel better, only to throw up in the sink without warning.

After taking some aspirin to ease my headache, I went to work. Much to the manager's annoyance, Crenshaw never showed up. I assumed he felt just as bad as I did, but after his second day of not showing up, I was ordered to go to his home to tell him he had been fired.

I walked directly to his apartment at the end of his shift, feeling guilty about having to deliver the news. Jobs were few and far between for a man of Crenshaw's age and temperament. With each step I took, thoughts about his future consumed my mind.

That was the cruelest of ironies.

The door of his apartment was unlocked. The chemical-like odor was still strong, but a meaty butcher shop smell was beneath it. I fearfully pushed the door open and found Crenshaw dead. He had been slit open from throat to belly. The expression on his face was a silent shriek of horror. The scene suggested suicide, but the knife in his hand was bloodless.

I looked from his body to the apartment wall and saw that the weight of the many layers of paint had caused a wide swath of the wallpaper to peel away, revealing the exposed underside. The jungle pattern on the back was the same as on the front, but its colors were vibrant and fresh.

The vibrant greens and blues of the jungle scene appeared to shift before my eyes, revealing new details with each glance. It almost seemed to come alive in the dim room. Gradually, a sound filled my ears—a cacophony of chirping insects blending with distant calls of exotic birds. Rustling leaves hinted at unseen movements of tiny creatures, while occasional snaps of twigs underfoot suggested larger animals prowling nearby. In the background, a rhythmic chorus of croaking frogs added to the symphony, a constant reminder of the teeming life hidden within the dense foliage.

Then, small dark eyes peered out from the depths of the jungle scene, causing my stomach to lurch. Vigilant and alert, those eyes were undeniably human. A heartbeat later the eyes vanished, and the sounds dwindled. This must be shock, I told myself. After one last look at Crenshaw, I turned to leave, leaving the door open, my attention drawn to the payphone at the end of the hallway.

A sudden movement caught my eye, freezing me in place. There it was—a crouched shadow darting across the room and out the open window. My rational mind suggested someone had been hiding unnoticed in a corner and fled when my back was turned. Yet deep down, I sensed I was alone in there. Just as I sensed, the small shape had emerged from the wall itself.

Now, days later, as I sit alone in my room with a drink in hand, I ponder whether what I witnessed was a horror that Crenshaw had brought home from the war or if it had always lurked patiently in that room, awaiting the right man burdened with the right damnation within him.

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