Each Terrible Wall

Will Kaufman


A room is supposed to have a fifth wall, the one between you and the terrible nose. Maybe whoever built this place stiffed the contractor, or maybe something worse happened. Either way this room we live in only has four finished walls.

Mona says I shouldn't let the nose bother me. She says, "It can't hurt you," as she stirs the pasta sauce on the stove. Her mother's recipe, tomatoes and roasted garlic and sautéed onions and basil and sugar. She always puts in too much sugar. I can hear the terrible nose sniffing.

Mona says, "Where else would we find an apartment we can afford in the city?" which is a fair point, considering the mortgage payments on the house by the park. The house with more space, where Mona refused to live for another day. But Mona doesn't mind how, in this apartment, when she showers and steam that smells of her papaya shampoo fills the room, the nose sniffs. How it sniffs when she rubs her lavender moisturizer onto her hands. When she sorts her growing heap of laundry, then pushes all the piles back into her closet, stirring up the dense odors of armpit and groin and foot, she doesn't care about the terrible nose sniffing.

"You put too much sugar in the sauce," I say.

"Fuck it then," she says, and takes the pot off the stove and drops it into the sink. She turns on the faucet and walks away, letting the pot fill, letting the water carry clots of the steaming, red sauce up and over the edges. The terrible nose inhales deeply, the smell of hot tomato and cold water.


Every room needs a sixth wall, the one between you and the terrible mouth. Even with the wall, sometimes you hear its lips sliding over each other, the slipping, sucking sound it makes as it drools, the click of its jaw when it opens wide. Its teeth creaking, grinding together in impatience. It is tired of waiting for you to fall in, like maybe the contractor did after he finished the fourth wall.

"Just keep away from it," Mona says. "It's not like it can grab you."

She moved the couch in front of where the sixth wall should go, far enough out that the tongue, long as a man, can't reach. "It's the only spot in the apartment that isn't cold," she says, as the tongue reaches for the back of her head and the windows fog up. The carpet beneath it is dark, spongy.

"It's ruining the carpet," I say, and I slap the tongue, and it recoils, teeth snapping, lips puckering like it's trying to clear a bad taste.

Mona says, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Me?" I say, wiping my hand on the sofa. "I don't want to live with that fucking thing, is what."

"Well, it's here," she says. "Are you going to be an asshole about it?"

"An asshole," I say. I go into the kitchen and grab the little jar of ground cayenne pepper off the shelf, come back, pry the plastic guard off the top, and dump the whole thing on the tongue. It goes crazy, whipping around, slapping against the teeth, lips pulled back. Mona winds up and slaps me.

I grab her wrist, I catch her, and then I stall.

She says, "Go on." Her eyes, wide and intent on mine, are terrible, and I can think of nothing to do next but terrible things.

So I let go.

She drops back on the couch, the tongue behind her trying to scrape the cayenne off against the teeth.

"Let's go out," I say. "Come on, we used to go to the bar, get a drink, catch a movie, walk in the park, whatever." I get down on my knees in front of the couch. "Please," I say.

"No," she says, without looking at me. "We're not going anywhere."


I catch Mona touching the terrible finger. She lies on the floor where the seventh wall should be, wrapped in the quilt her mother left to her, outstretched hand tracing the deep ridges of the thing's giant fingerprint. Her back is to me, and I don't think she heard me come in. I sneak out of the room.

An hour later I come in loud and obvious and suggest maybe we should try building the missing walls ourselves.

"You don't know how to build anything," says Mona.

"It's some wood and some plaster," I say. "We'll do it together. You're smart. We'll figure it out."

"What's the point?" she says. "They'll still be there. Walls don't make what's outside stop existing."

"Yeah, but we don't need to look at it all the time," I say.

I expect her to tell me I don't understand, but instead she says she's going to bed.

Then a few days later I come in and she's holding her shirt up over her breasts. The terrible finger is stroking her belly, and she's got tears on her cheeks. I guess I thought she was over that, that and her mom. How long can she feel shitty?

But I think those things later. When I see the terrible finger stroking Mona's bare skin I go to the kitchen again, I grab the biggest knife in the butcher block, the long, curved carving knife, sharp because we never eat turkeys or roasts or whatever the fuck people carve with long, curved knives. Then I stab the finger.

Mona kicks me out. I drive out to the suburbs, and leave my car in the driveway of the house we still own, and I walk to the park next door. It's night, and the park is quiet, lit by bright lamps to make it feel safe, and I sit on a swing, and dig my heels into the sand, and the chains creak, and I look up. The sky is a hole where a wall should be, and I'm glad I can't see the stars past the glare of the lamps.

In the house, with all its extra space, and all its finished walls, I sit down on the big bed in the master bedroom, and that's when I think those things, tracing the pattern on the bedspread Mona picked out. I think those things, and I listen for the hints of the terrible organs on the other side of the walls.


After two nights at the house, I figure I should see if Mona's calmed down, so I go to the apartment and let myself in. The room is lit only by the orange glow of sunlight seeping around the edges of the drawn curtains. Mona leans against the fourth wall, chipping at the plaster with a steak knife, a pile of plaster dust in front of her. She's made a hole as big as her fist right in the middle, right where the iris of the terrible eye must be.

"The fuck is this?" I say.

She doesn't look at me. "Go away," she says.

I flip the lights on and Mona turns, face going red, and shouts, "Turn it off."


She throws the knife at me. It clunks against the door by my shoulder, handle first. I turn off the light.

I can't see anything for a second while my eyes adjust, but I hear a scratching noise. Finally I can make out Mona, widening the hole with her thumbnail.

"Christ," I say. "You need help."

She says, "No. I just."

I wait for her to finish. When she doesn't I ask, "You just what?"

"What do you see?" She stands up. "Look at me. What do you see?"

"My wife," I say. "My fucking crazy, sad wife."

"That's me." She leans her head against the wall, and in the silence I can hear a wet clicking, and I realize it must be the eyelid, blinking, unaccustomed to the light. "What do you think it will see?"

For a feverish moment I want to push her against the wall. I want to kiss her, feel her wake under my hands. I want to know I have the power to change her.

Mona says, "I'm going to bed."

"It's four PM," I say, and I walk over to the window and yank the curtains open, letting in the sunlit glare of the yellow stucco wall across the alley. When I turn around, Mona's gone.

"Fine," I say. "But I'm staying here tonight."

I take her silence as consent.


I wake up to Mona singing a quiet lullaby. She's sitting in the folds of the terrible ear, where the eighth wall should be, and she's singing into the terrible tunnel at its center. I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep, because what am I going to say? I wish I were free to start some other, newer life, but I remind myself how, in the bedroom in the house with its eight beige walls, I wished I had Mona, had her as she was before the betrayals of such terrible organs as liver and womb stole her heart away, when only I consumed her.

Mona's voice is beautiful, even hushed in the dark, where it dips into rattle and fry in her raw throat, still it surfaces like the distant song of some night bird native to a country I have never visited. We listen, terrible ear and I, and imagine that country, where rooms do not need eight walls, because there are no terrible eyes to hide, no terrible mouths, no terrible hunger. And in such a country, if I left, Mona could not be inhaled by a terrible nose, or touched by a terrible hand. She could not be the subject of the terrible body that feeds all these greedy senses. She would simply be alone.

But we live in this country, so tomorrow I will discover if I am strong enough to jam a broomstick through the hole Mona chipped in the fourth wall.