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The Blue Wallpaper 

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Art by Paige Imatani

Andy’s prescription wallpaper arrived by certified mail on a Friday. Saturday morning he got in his gray Mazda 323 (a car faded after many owners to camouflage with overcast skies, parking garages and moods), and by 10 o’clock he was cruising slowly past the lumberyard, his passenger window rolled down, trolling for day laborers.

The two men he brought home spent most of the day installing the paper, then replacing his furniture in an odd pattern — some kind of Mexican feng shui, Andy guessed, an arrangement designed to evoke unaesthetic melodrama. They left in time for him to listen to the Top 40 countdown sitting in his armchair, in a room that was now a mildly phosphorescent blue.

Andy didn’t know whether to be disappointed or afraid. The accompanying literature’s product description/side-effect warning talked of the psychotropic color matrix, its short- and long-wave refractive scatter-print lithography, and something called pseudo-ideographic density patterning, and led him to expect some kind of stylishly antidotal paisley jazz — something crunchy and florid.

This was more like something that was supposed to be a secret, he thought with a mild sense of alarm, listening to the No. 6 hit, a plangent love song that actually got to him.

Andy had planned his vacation to coincide with the arrival of the wallpaper, so that he could get a good dose right off, with plenty of daylight, which, his doctor said, was the optimal catalyst, though the paper did arrive with a 12-pack of special light bulbs for use at night.

It wasn’t just the love song making him tear up: The smell of the freshly departed workers, he thought, a smell like mentholated beer — he’d bought them beer so they’d like him — or it might have been the smell of wallpaper paste, or the smell of disturbed space. Whatever, it left him wide-open for sentimentality. He felt nervous and crass, or hopeful, he couldn’t tell.

Sunday morning, the Times didn’t come, and instead of taking it personally, Andy called and had it redelivered. While he sat on his front steps waiting for it, he decided to have a yard sale: He would take everything he owned, clothes, pots, pans, personal items, drawers of buttons and paper clips and empty Band-Aid tins, books, camping gear, everything except the big furniture, and lay it all out neatly on the lawn.

He made signs out of construction paper and taped them to telephone poles on the busy streets nearby, and when, around 10 o’clock, he was thirsty for root beer, he shut the front door, wrote, "Back in five" on a Post-it note, and drove to the market. If anyone stole anything, he didn’t know about it.

At noon, a blond woman in a green Bavaria bought his blender and kitchen knives. At 12:20, the guys from the big unmown house down the block bought all his Levi’s, a pair of Florsheim brogues, and some of his old vinyl, mostly the Led Zeppelin and Yes albums he hadn’t listened to since high school. This made him cringe in a good way. Other neighbors came to look, and bought little lamps and sewing kits and empty poster frames.

After 1:30, a late-model Lincoln with a violent dent in the front fender pulled up and a man got out, leaving his family inside the idling car. He was wearing parts of a suit, as they seemed to be coming from church. He ranged around Andy’s lawn with momentum, then said in a heavy Eastern European accent, "How much for everything?"

"I’m sorry?" Andy said.

The man made a big, mad gesture toward the idling car. "How much for everything? She comes, takes what she wants."

Andy said, "Everything? I don’t know . . ."

The man threw up his hands. "Give her what she wants, I pay for it!" He stormed back to the car. After a lot of voluble haggling, a woman, not the wife, but probably a daughter, got out of the back seat. She walked up the lawn on swizzly legs, recently tearful, looked around at Andy’s stuff, then buried her face in her hands and ran back to the Lincoln, which accepted her and sped off.

Five minutes after the fact, Andy answered, "Everything? No, you can’t have everything!"

Three o’clock, the woman from the brick building across the street came over, wearing shorts and carrying a cup of coffee. She was the one who sunbathed on the building’s postage-stamp lawn all summer. She sunbathed clinically, with an air of diligence that made it more or less all right rather than awful or titillating, and ã truthfully, she didn’t have a back yard.

Her name was Irma, and she sat on the steps with Andy, keeping him company. She could not very well have sunbathed today, with a yard sale across the street. Andy noticed that she acted out-of-doors as if she were in her own living room.

Some time later a friend of hers, Lia, showed up in a caramel-colored Dodge Dart. Irma and Lia were both about thirty-three or -five, and looked like they might have been fashionable types five years ago, and probably still were once in a while.

"I had a yard sale once," Lia said, pacing slightly in the grass, slipping her sandals off and on. "I did it because I had a huge crush on the guy who lived next door, and I was desperate to meet him. So I put out all of my best stuff, so that he’d see what kind of fabulous person I was and want to meet me."

"Did it work?" Irma asked.

"I even went out and bought a bunch of new stuff the day before," Lia said. "I bought peacock feathers!" she shrieked.

"Did it work?" Irma asked again.

"I guess so," Lia said. "He bought a lot of it, and then he asked me out. But when I went over there for our date, he was living with all my stuff, and I just didn’t know him well enough, it was creepy."

"Did you move?" Andy asked.

Lia looked startled. "Yes. I guess I did. I hadn’t thought of it that way. But I moved a couple of months later. Are you moving?"

Andy frowned.

"Is that why the yard sale?"

"No, just getting rid of some stuff. It was that or move."

"I know what you mean," Irma said. "Sometimes I think my apartment is renting me."

"I used to shop a lot in thrift stores," Lia said. "But I kind of tapered off after that date. I started thinking about where everything might have been, and it was just too much."

My house owns me, even though I rent it, Andy thought brightly, but didn’t get it out because Irma was saying, "I wonder what’s worse though, that or always buying brand-new stuff. New things seem to me to be in so much pain. It’s all so badly made. It’s so brutal! I think it takes years for things to recover from being made, at least the things I can afford."

"I feel the same way about people," Andy said. Both women looked at him.

"New people — like born-agains, or happy people."

"Yes!" Lia cried. "I know exactly what you mean." She took a couple of back-and-forth steps on the lawn. "People with new jobs, or who are in love!!"

Andy began to experience the magic of his complete lack of sexual attraction to either of these relatively attractive girls. Like a little glow, it was.

"I like people when they’re just alive," he said. "Without the hype."

"Yes!" Lia cried again. Irma smiled up into the sun, ruminative.

"You know when I like people the best?" Andy ventured.

"When?" Lia asked. He liked her. She was game.

"I like them riding the bus."

They all took a moment to picture it.

"When they’re in public, but they’re all shut down and quiet, and they’re going somewhere, but it’s somewhere they always go. It’s never an emergency."

"You don’t take the bus to an emergency," Irma agreed.

"You know what’s fun?" Lia said. "Watching people watch a movie. I did that once, when I was in Spain, and an American movie was playing, but it turned out to be dubbed, and I couldn’t understand a word, so I turned around and sat watching people watch the movie, and their faces were open." She darkened for a moment. "That almost sounds creepy, now that I say it. But it wasn’t at the time, it was perfectly innocent, I swear."

Andy liked everything they did or said. This, he thought, this is how you’re supposed to feel.

"Hey, you know that wallpaper?" Andy said.

"You mean the Prozac-by-the-yard stuff?" Irma said.

"What?" Lia said.

Andy nodded. "I had some put in yesterday. Would you like to see it?"

He led the way through the open front door into the living room. They all three stood in the middle of the room, striking attitudes of assessment.

"It’s blue?" Lia said, and they giggled and shushed each other like visitors to a serious art gallery.

"I was listening to the Top 40 yesterday," Andy said, beckoning them close, "and I started to cry!"

Irma giggled again. "No wonder you’re sitting on the porch."

Lia looked around the room. "Okay," she whispered. "Okay. Let’s just all sit in here for a while and see what happens."

Irma gestured toward the front door, and the lawn. "If anybody comes by, we’ll hear them."

"Okay," Andy said, "let’s do it."

They took up positions on the carpet, Irma against the wall with an eye to the door, Andy leaning back against the sofa, and Lia cross-legged in front of the coffee table.

"It’s like being in Egypt," Lia whispered after a while, smiling.

The compressor on the refrigerator kicked in with a low, thrombic hum.

Hillary Johnson is the author of Physical Culture, a novel, and Super Vixens’ Dymaxion Lounge, a collection of nonfiction. She lives in a Hollywood high-rise.

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