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Jul/Aug 2005 fiction

The Chartreuse Wallpaper

by David J. LeMaster


"I've got out at last, despite you and Jane."
        —Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Who the hell is Jane?
        —David J. LeMaster

In a search for happiness, my husband, John, has forced me to join him for the summer at a beach house just outside Destin, Florida.

Ah, happiness.

Ah, HELP!

 

This house has the most horrific wallpaper. A terrible off-yellow with patterns of tiny stars and suns. Worse than off-yellow—off-urine yellow. Off-puke yellow. But John calls it "Happy Yellow." He thinks Happy Yellow will brighten my day, will lighten my coal-black hair, will lesson the severity of his squared chin and thinning, pointed head. Sunshine, says John, will brighten any depression.

But John's Happy Yellow is a headache-inducing, stomach-churning assault on good taste that is enough to drive even the soundest mind to Lithium. The beach itself is even worse. We're stuck surrounded by geriatrics who've retired from Buffalo.

Things will pick up during July, John says. That's when the fraternities and sororities descend on Eden to chase the retirees up the panhandle. We'll be left with to deal with the university's best and brightest.

Oh, joy.

 

John wants us both away from the "horrors of the modern world."

In other words, he's taken my Windows, my cell, my pager, my laptop, my calendar, my personal computer, my camera phone, my Palm Pilot, my E-mail, and even my Word. He's confiscated all contact with the outside world and forced me to relinquish command of the real estate business for the summer to his sister, Jennie.

Jennie is an egotistical, sniveling twit. She'll run the company into the ground if she controls it for the whole summer, but John is a physician, a doctor of psychiatry, bless his little advice-toting heart, and after my recent bouts with migraines, stress, indigestion, and panic attacks, he insists on a quiet summer by the beach, just the two of us, our lovely summer home, and the refreshing sound of the waves.

I'd rather listen to rap music and watch a bowl of bananas ripen until they're black.

I keep looking for banana patterns in this infernal yellow wallpaper.

 

John nearly caught me writing yesterday. I'd composed an E-mail to Jennie when he discovered that I'd smuggled in a laptop. He's locked it in the closet and forbade me to stress myself for the duration of the summer.

He also found my extra supply of Prozac.

John wrote the prescription himself, two years ago, and I found it very handy. So handy, in fact, that I've authorized seventeen refills.

I learned to forge his signature a century ago, it seems—don't all doctors have abysmal handwriting? I learned to loop the "I's" and leave a swirl on the end of my "J." And what do you think he said to me when he discovered my crime? "What have you done, dear girl?"

Dear girl? Am I his child?

"You'll get me in trouble, my little dumpling."

Am I an appetizer? What's his main course?

"I forbid you to do such things, sweetie."

Am I a dessert?

He chastised me at the dinner table, of all places. I got back at him, though, when I threw my bowl of blueberry pudding at the wall. Let's see him get blueberries out of Happy Yellow.

 

This afternoon, John removed from the house the television and all of the radios.

He kept, however, his beloved CD player, so he can listen to Bach and Beethoven, Schuman and Stravinski.

Can anyone stand Stravinski? He makes me want to slam my head into something. How does one relax with music like that? Pounding, slamming, thundering music—like rap without the lyrics.

And all the while, the Happy Freaking Paper shining in yellow obsequiousness from the inescapable prison walls.

It gives me a Yellow Headache.

"Music soothes the savage beast," John says, as if he's being clever. "Mozart makes you smarter," John claims. He cites a study in the Journal of Medicine. I cite the Dictionary of Cliches.

I suppose it's my own fault—I huddled too long in front of CNN. I should never have called the president a dirty, no-good, lying, war-mongering, Bible-thumping, newspaper eschewing, agenda-toting, New Deal-wrecking, middle-class-destroying, egotistical son of a bitch, nor should I have shot the bird at the television as he boarded Air Force One.

I should at least have waited to do so until John left the room.

John says the television makes my blood pressure go up.

I begged him to let me keep it, just for reruns of Sex and the City, but he claims it's a panic attack and sexual identity crisis waiting to happen. As if the Happy Paper's not.

So now John locks himself in an office during the morning—he's allowed to use the Internet—and I have the beach and the joyous Yellow to keep me company. And the tide.

In and out.

In and out.

In and out.

The horror. The horror.

 

Text Message: Jennie. Send records of the Conway deal immediately. Do not go under $150,000. Call me at five o'clock on the fifth.

 

Jennie is a snively little tattle-tale. John found and confiscated my cell phone.

 

I'm so bored I could thaw, melt, and resolve myself into a dew.

Ha. Ha.

I majored in literature. Hoped to write the Great American Novel but became wracked with writer's block and the desire to make the big buck. Oh, what I'd give for Microsoft Word. Or even Notepad.

I'm reduced to scribbling my diary entries with a little yellow pencil slab on the back of a Starbucks receipt. I'd forgotten the agony of writing with such a Neanderthal invention as the old, dependable Number 2.

If only I'd known he planned to cut me off from the civilized world, I'd have brought a volume of Shakespeare. Or perhaps one of the novels I never got around to reading before—Dickens, perhaps. Or Dostoevsky.

But there are no bookstores close, and John cut off our subscription to the paper. Al Qaeda could blow up the entire Western Hemisphere, and I'd never know.

John offered his books. He reads Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Louis Lamour.

"Relax," he says. "Read for entertainment."

I'd slit my wrists from boredom, but he snatched all the sharp objects from the house.

Maybe I'll use one of his novels to kill myself with paper cuts.

 

Last night, John promised to redecorate. Said he'd chosen new wallpaper. I asked him where he found it, and he said, "Walmart." I can only pray he's joking.

 

John wasn't joking. Heaven save my soul.

 

He changed the walls from Happy Yellow to the most god-awful yellow-green in the universe. He calls it lemon-lime, but it looks like the chartreuse crayon in the 64-Crayola Crayon set. Did they even have a chartreuse? I don't remember.

I see the color and imagine it on women who describe "tornadic activity" for the nine-o'clock news. I imagine it covering trailer homes. I imagine it as the color of choice for the National Association of the Color-blind.

There are no suns and stars in this chartreuse. The pattern's a bizarre mixture of angles, all of which cut off at the end and commit artistic suicide, plunging to their deaths at unexplained patterns of green and brown, like ivy roots, spreading cancer across the deathly yellow-green landscape.

I find myself looking at the paper and acknowledging the smell, a chartreuse smell, neither yellow nor green, but generic, like the other items at Walmart, that corporate stealer of special skills, that impersonal conqueror of labor unions, that enemy of the poor and upholder of the minimum wage.

Oh, here comes John!

 

John told me today he's brought me here to "find" myself.

"You're too much into your work, little one," he said. "You define yourself by your job. Let it go. Relax."

So I'm to find myself in white caps and Stephen King?

John's given me The Shining and arranged an umbrella chair on the beach. King writes about an isolated writer who loses his sanity. Did John give this to me on purpose? Is he taunting me? Giving me hints?

Nevertheless, I can't read The Shining. Each time I look at the title, it reminds me of Jack Nicholson and the life I've left behind. A Blockbuster! A Blockbuster! My kingdom for a Blockbuster Video!

 

At last I understand.

John's Miching Malicho means mischief!

He dropped the bomb at dinner, a lovely combination of salad and fish (again—fish, fish, fish).

"Why do you continue to pursue this ridiculous career of yours," he said, "when it's driving you to illness?" And then he said what he's hinted for months.

"It's time for a baby," he said. "You'll regret not having one when you're old, and your biological clock ticks fast, dear girl. The time is now!"

Dear me, how close I was to death and never knew it.

A baby. Of course. The answer to all!

 

Dear John brought me a book today. Not Shakespeare or Dickens or Melville or Bronte. Meyers. A Dr. F. A. Meyers, to be precise, a foremost expert on children and fertility.

How lovely.

 

I'll walk the beach today. John agreed to give me time to myself.

I'll fill my pockets with stones and walk into the water, like Virginia Wolfe. A lovely thought—if only I could find the stones.

Instead, I must settle on sand, which gets wet and gooey in the ocean but doesn't weigh the victim down. But I'd rather die a watery death in sandy goo than read another word of John's grocery store-bought fiction drivel.

 

John has brought a dozen rolls of wallpaper to the beach house and keeps them in the hallway. He claims he's found his second calling as an interior decorator.

He's watched too many redecorating shows on Home and Garden Television.

Last night, as John droned on about the benefits of a low-carb, low-cholesterol diet and his decision to write his own diet book, I found myself staring at the newly wallpapered hallway. God, the ghastly, ghoulish green.

I miss the Happy Yellow.

 

I cannot sleep for the ferocity of John's snores. The man's a doctor, for God's sake, so why the hell can't he cure himself from snoring? He wears a nasal strip and uses spray, to no avail. Some nights the din wakes me; others, it prevents me from falling asleep at all.

Murderous fantasies abound. I imagine duct-taping John's mouth and nose. I picture tossing him out of the window. I dream of recording his late-night symphony of snores and then forcing him to listen to it.

But mostly, I sit in bed and study that infernal chartreuse paper.

It seems to have shadows in the moonlight.

I imagine a woman inside the shadows. A woman on the other side of the paper, clawing in her effort to get out.

Perhaps John's snores keep her awake as well?

 

He asked me again to give up the business when we get back.

He dropped this bombshell as he spoke of children, or rather the potential children he wants us to have. I hid my birth control pills so he can't find them, but I'm running out, and there's no pharmacy nearby.

But if I could find a pharmacy, then I'd forge his signature for more Valium. The birth control pills can wait. He doesn't get it up much, anyway.

 

The woman inside the wallpaper spoke to me.

I haven't told John. He'd dismiss it as a hypnogogic dream—and perhaps it was, brought on by a hallucinatory insomnia caused by the percussion of his snores.

But she spoke.

Sang, perhaps. A banshee outside my window—except she is in the wallpaper.

Get out, she said. So Amityville.

But I must ask her: Get out of what?

 

The woman in the paper looks just like me.

I may have caught my own reflection in the mirror, but I swore I saw something in the paper, staring out at me. Pointing. Crying. Screaming.

Get out. Get out.

I'd say something to John, but I fear he'd have me put away. He thinks I've lost it, sitting about the house and crying all day, and perhaps I have. But wouldn't you cry, too, if your husband took away your work?

I asked to have it back, and he forbade it. Forbade it! Like we're in the 19th century!

And that's when I caught sight of myself in the mirror. Or in the wallpaper, perhaps. And it got me to thinking. What if one were wrapped up in the wallpaper? Exiled in the wall, while the rest of the world swam by in its primordial drive to reproduce. What if John wakes up one night and plasters me in the wall as he sips Amontillado? Keeps me as a trophy like a less civilized man might keep the head of a deer or a wild boar? A painting on the wall, like My Last Duchess? What then? Will he bring in visitors to gawk at the feminine species he's put out of its misery and shown, despite it all, the model of a complete, uncompromising happiness?

He snores.

The walls speak.

Get out.

I shiver in the bed. Watch the wall. See the figure.

It could be me.

 

I creep around the house by moonlight. Creep down the stairs and outside onto the beach. Creep in the darkness, so John can't see me as I think about Virginia Wolfe's stones.

I cannot do it.

Is it because I can't find stones, or because I cannot find the greatness of Virginia Wolfe?

 

John snores.

I awaken and stare at the wall. I see myself. All wrapped in the paper.

I've got to capture him before he captures me.

I slip out of bed and creep down the stairs.

I creep across the hall to the spot where John keeps the rolls of wallpaper. Eight of them, prepasted, still standing against the wall. He lost his redecoration drive and left them there.

Fool.

I carry three rolls upstairs and creep across the floor. He's there. Snoring. I bring out the water tray and submerge a strip. Then I book the wallpaper—with John inside. I wrap the paper once across John's naked back, then around the bedsides and under the bed—I slide beneath the bed along with it, and against the hardwood floor, then out the other side and up the side of the bed and over John again.

Booked.

He stirs.

I'm over him again. Another layer of paper across his back and neck and then down the side and under again. I cannot suppress a laugh. He tries to move but is caught in the stickiness of the spider's web I've built around him.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"Just sleep, dear boy," I say, and whirl the paper around his head and over the bedsides, under the bed, so quickly he can't react. He's caught like a fly in a web.

"What's happening?" he cries. "Are you insane?"

I keep on creeping across him with the roll of wallpaper.

Why on earth would poor John scream? After all, I am his wife. He should trust me as I have trusted him. But scream he does, gasping and ripping at the paper like he's been entrapped.

"I'm going back," I tell him.

"Going where?"

"To work."

"But darling—"

But he says no more. I unroll more paper and cover him up, the spider victorious as I creep over him every time.

 

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