The thing in the wall concerned them both, of course, but what could be done? Jane proposed calling the landlord, a very sensible, Jane thing to do, and so Ted immediately countered.
“But we haven’t paid August’s rent yet. So far we’ve been able to avoid the conversation, but if the landlord hears about the thing in the wall, why the jig is up. We can’t talk about a thing in the wall without talking about rent. One thing will surely lead into the other. A natural segue.”
Jane felt a more eloquent speaker could have made a phone call about the thing in the wall without dovetailing into the ugly business of money owed, but that Ted clearly wasn’t that person, and she told him as such.
“Maybe you should call,” suggested Ted.
It was the scratching that bothered him most, the sound issuing from a point so close to the headboard, and on his side of the bed no less. That the sound was from something alive, and not the result of, say, apartment settling, or pipe expansion, went without question. However, when Ted tried to envision the sound as the result of a specific type of animal, a rat, or a possum, the image eluded him. There was the wall, and there was the sound. The sound was made by a thing. Anything beyond that was pointless speculation.
“I don’t think me calling is particularly wise considering our past history,” said Jane. “The landlord’s and mine, I mean. Do you think that’s a wise approach to take, Ted?”
“I suppose not,” said Ted, though he wasn’t sure.
This is how the subject of involving the landlord was closed.
An exterminator, too, was beyond their means. The meager funds they did have, Ted felt, should be allocated toward something practical, such as rent due, or something so wildly frivolous as to make the spending of money seem inconsequential when compared to the memories and stories that would, no doubt, be gleamed from such wild splurging. The thing in the wall, Ted explained, was neither practical or frivolous. It was a thing in the wall, and therefore any spending on its behalf was difficult, if not impossible, to justify.
“Maybe we should add it to our budget,” Jane said, after several nights. “Like an amendment to the constitution. Because things come up.”
“But what happens when the thing in the wall is gone, and we’re still budgeting for it? It’s more of a one-off sort of affair. Should we be adding one-off sort of affairs to the budget? Doesn’t that seem irresponsible? It does to me. Irresponsible. Not to mention complicated.”
“Anyway,” she said, “the idea isn’t to exterminate the thing in the wall. We don’t want to kill it.”
“We just want it out of the wall. Our wall.”
“Exactly. We want to help the thing in the wall. We’re not murderers.”
The thing in the wall started screaming that night, a sharp high pitched squeak at uneven intervals, sometimes minutes apart, sometimes hours. Jane said it was trapped, and Ted was inclined to agree.
There were six units in the building all together. Jane and Ted lived in the rear basement apartment, which was several hundred dollars cheaper than what was essentially the same amount of space in an above ground unit. Plus, they had their own entrance, so it was a no-brainer. When it came to the thing in the wall, however, their subterranean arrangement was an immediate hindrance.
“If we could get around the space somehow,” Ted said, “we could see if there was an open grate or hole. We could set food around the hole to lure it out.”
“What?” Jane’s earbuds were in and she hadn’t been listening, but Ted was too tired to repeat himself. He hadn’t slept a wink all week.
As for Jane, she came home less and less. There were after-work drinks to be had, and after-drinks work. Later, she would climb into bed tipsy and smelling of cigarettes. She said she couldn’t hear it then, and she would sleep nearly on the edge of the mattress, her body as far away as possible from the sound of the scratching and screaming. They had stopped talking about a plan, Ted realized. Part of him was relieved, as if a terrible burden had been somehow lifted from his life.
As suddenly as the noise started, it stopped. Ted was brushing his teeth, the steady swish-swish-swish of even strokes echoing off the tiles of the bathroom, when he noticed just how quiet the apartment had been.
“I don’t think this means anything,” Jane said. “The thing in the wall has gone days without making a sound before.”
“But never this long.”
“Maybe it’s dead.”
Ted hadn’t thought of that possibility, assumed only the lack of noise was indicative of absence. “This is a good thing,” he stressed. “You won’t need to stay out so much. We can finally get some peace.” He reached over and brushed her hair aside with his fingers and she kissed him and kissed him again. They fumbled toward the mattress and he removed her shirt.
“We should put some music on,” Jane suggested. Ted found a playlist of classic jazz and soul, and they made love under the hum of muted trumpets. He kissed her neck the way she liked it, and she thought about the thing in the wall, and whether it was alive or dead.
The next evening, the landlord knocked in that specific landlord way, four strong blows to the wood, indicating power and purpose, and Ted was compelled to answer. The rent and how much of it could be gathered and turned over within the next five minutes was the primary subject of his inquires. That, and some veiled references to Jane that Ted felt wise to ignore.
“Jane,” Ted yelled from the doorway. “I need your checkbook!” There was no response. Maybe she’s sleeping, Ted thought. He excused himself and poked his head into the bedroom, but the corners of the sheets were tucked under the mattress and the pillows stacked as he had left them when making the bed after breakfast. She was not in the bathroom either. Or the kitchen.
“She’s probably at after-drinks work,” Ted explained, though the landlord was not amused, and following some insulting remarks on both sides, Ted found his own checkbook (back of his closet, under the hat), and paid off the visitor. They said their brusque goodbyes and the door was closed. Ted looked at the clock; it was getting late. He brushed his teeth and took his evening shower, read a few pages of the paperback he found on the coffee table and fell asleep in the stillness of the night.
In the morning, Ted dressed and made up the bed. Not having anything particular to do, he washed the dishes in the sink, and vacuumed the crumbs from the floor. He watered the cactus plant by the refrigerator. He dusted the lamp shade. He thawed out the tilapia in the freezer and looked up a recipe for Jane to follow when she came home. Later, he pan-fried the tilapia, sprinkling it with all–purpose spice, and ate alone in front of the television. He placed Jane’s portion back in the fridge, so as not to go bad. He poured a glass of wine. He brushed his teeth and took his evening shower. He was too tired to read. Ted sat on the mattress and placed his hand on the wall by the headboard. He stayed like this a long time, hand tense against the wall, waiting quietly, until he felt what he knew was a heartbeat, fragile and distant, coming from somewhere deep within.
Then he poured another glass of wine and went to bed.