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“Walls. Singing Bushes.” by Robert Pettus

In February of 2023, we released our third open call: How might we reflect and reimagine wellness in public health as art, letters, stories and poetry? The following is a story submission we received from this open call.

“This submission is a reflection on how people deal with addiction and thereafter relate to others in similar situations.”

Robert Pettus

Walls. Singing Bushes.

If walls could talk maybe they could have alerted someone as Alex lay sprawled out convulsing on the carpet spewing saliva across his face as his eyes rolled back into the black depths of his poisoned skull. If walls could talk perhaps he would’ve been saved from flopping around percussively—his arms striking the carpet like sticks to a pair of tom-toms—and gasping for breath like a shored crappie. 

The mop-haired carpet could have been saved from soaking up the sudsy vomit overflowing from his gurgling mouth. Court ordered life at the sober living house couldn’t save Alex, nor could his baggie of leftover smack smushed in the back pocket of his Levi’s jeans under the weight of his bouncing ass. 

The sober living house didn’t seem to help many of its residents, the walls may have thought. The bushes lining the house hid within their bulbous canopies an ever-growing pile of booze bottles; the most poplar choices 40oz. Budweisers and pints of Wild Turkey. Those bottles would lay in there clinking together like chimes on windy nights whenever the weather shook the foliage until one of the residents, desperate for a little cash, would collect them—anxiety and mental anguish building as they gathered into a large trash bag each of those chiming bottles—and haul them off to be recycled, hoping not to be seen by the landlord, a cop, or a sponsor. 

If walls could talk they could have talked to the subsequent homeowner upon finding hidden in the back of that deep closet in Alex’s former room cold as the grave a child’s water-color painting that said ‘To Dad, Happy Father’s Day.’ The walls could have maybe explained that the artwork wasn’t left there by an apathetic father moving out of the house. Alex wasn’t apathetic in a paternal sense; he cared—he experienced anguish at the reality of his shitty parenthood. No, he wasn’t apathetic. He was merely an uncontrollable junkie who had managed to get himself killed before moving out of the sober living house. The walls could have explained that Alex didn’t want to leave his kids painting at the house, he had just fucked up. Again. This time for the last time.

If the walls in that small rectangular bedroom could talk they could have explained that it wasn’t a piss stain dripping down the side of the wall, it was a dark yellow candle that had overflowed—much like Alex’s vomiting mouth—after he had passed out and then perished. That candle had burned for hours, the smoky aroma of Birchwood Beach fusing with the growing scent of bodily fluids and death. The Kentucky spring breeze blowing in through the open window couldn’t mask it; that stench would eventually fill the rest of the house, after which Alex’s roommates would come and find him lying lifeless, staring upward at them as they entered the room with the vacant eyes and opened mouth of a fish. 

They would cry, not entirely unselfishly. They would know that Alex could have been them; they would know they too could be dead. In the back of their minds they may have even felt angry at Alex. They might have been planning to get buzzed off later that evening, loading up a pipe or shooting up their arm or throwing an emptied bottle of Turkey into the bush. They wouldn’t be able to do that now, not without further regret and self-loathing, at least. 

The hangover would now be worse.

If walls could talk the subsequent owner would have known as he painted coat after coat of fumy satin white over the candle wax stains and ripped up the carpet that this was a room that had seen pain. The walls could have explained as he assembled the crib that decisions are important and loneliness can be deadly. 

If walls could talk they could have alerted that subsequent homeowner, called Oscar, of the reason for the baby’s continued crying. Those walls could have told Oscar, a first-time parent, that the baby wasn’t being unreasonably noisy. The baby wasn’t simply reacting to new experience. The window—that one in the bedroom above the singing bushes—was blowing in with its breeze the specter of a lost father. A spirit with a clear job to do though no way of doing it.

The baby wailed and shook the brittle old crib, one likely too old to again reuse, but Oscar had gotten it recycled and it was all he could afford. Oscar would enter Alex’s former bedroom and comfort his newborn, his head throbbing as he remembered the bottle he had thrown into the bush earlier that afternoon. He had heard a soft clink as the bottle landed, but he didn’t look inside. He hadn’t noticed the entirety of the collection.

If walls could talk they could have told Oscar. If the baby could yet talk, maybe they also could have explained. It wasn’t the wind; it wasn’t the child being unreasonable—it was Alex darting around the room, bouncing off the newly painted walls and screaming through the restlessness of an unquiet grave.

If walls could talk, they could have told Oscar that Alex was aware of the painting in the closet; he knew it was still there.

He simply couldn’t tell Oscar about it. He couldn’t explain his situation. The baby noticed him, but he couldn’t explain to the baby, and the baby couldn’t yet talk.

Alex had no way of lifting the painting. He had no method of delivering it to his son. His son, who gazed out windows every evening, inhaling the crisp breeze, fragrant of both earth and fuel—both nature and construction—wondering where his dead father might now be.

If walls could talk, they could have told Oscar what to do with that painting when he finally found it deep in that cold closet. Walls can’t talk, though, so Oscar, shaking his head at the neglect of some parents, threw the painting in the trash.

The painting featured a family holding hands, a house, and a sun. Several bushes surrounded the house. 

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