The Summer of the Riotous Walls

The Summer of the Riotous Walls

The Riotous Walls is a fictionalized memoir of the summer of 1991 in a sweltering upstairs apartment on the outskirts of a small Mennonite college town in northern Indiana. I’m a student, just off the plane from a semester in Costa Rica and excited for my first apartment with my best friend BETH and her new friends SHEILA and NINA. Things begin to turn out differently than what I’d imagined right from the start. I don’t like Nina at all, Sheila is chronically nervous and something is going on with Beth. My boyfriend, TOM, who anxiously awaited my return, is supposed to help erase from my mind the memory of a young man who gained my affection in Costa Rica—but it isn’t working.


Literary fiction


Diana Zimmerman (United States)

Chapter 1
What Comes After

I would love to sneak into the house when no one’s home, and scrape away the paint upstairs to see it all again. I know for a fact it’s still there, because we couldn’t get it off: Nina’s writhing beast, Beth’s spiraling suns, Sheila’s giant alphabet and the geometric designs I copied from the notebook I kept hidden under my mattress.
That place was heaven and hell wrapped into one burrito. The house probably stood there when 11th street was a cornfield, and somber-faced men in suits broke ground for the Mennonite college on the other side of town. Whoever added the stairway up to our door didn’t bother to attach it to the house, so it wobbled disastrously. Earwigs ran under the spoons when you opened the kitchen drawers and the guys who lived there before us never once cleaned the bathroom. But we paid the deposit, and that made it beautiful. That alone eclipsed the disrepair and the bugs.
In the steamy summer of 1991, the air in Indiana was thick as hot soup, and the higher the mercury climbed, the better it measured our fever. Half way through college, we were finally on our own. No one could tell us what to do.
I refused to go home to the farm in Pennsylvania where I would have to obey my parents’ rules all summer and pretend I still thought church ice cream socials were fun. Hell no. I was staying right here with Beth and the other two girls she picked to be our housemates. She wrote me last semester while I was in Costa Rica to say that she found the perfect house mates for us. She told me that Nina is a brilliant artist and that Sheila is a hilarious ball of misadventures. I was thrilled. I would love them, I knew it. A friend of Beth’s is a friend of mine.
Any day now, I would start feeling like my old self again. Of course. Everything would be fine. I would conquer my new, private sadness by smothering it in a blanket of silence until it stopped kicking. Eventually, it would have to. All I needed was a little time.

I’m a morning person, so I would have started hauling my boxes up the stairs at the crack of dawn, but I didn’t have the key to take them inside. I had to wait around at Tom’s house until ten o’clock when Nina’s brother, Anthony, brought everybody else, with their books and the mattresses they stole, from the dorms on campus. The dorms throw everyone out at the end of the winter semester, so if you’ve signed yourself up for the summer classes in May and June like we did, you have to find somewhere else to live.
I’d packed my boxes and my blue suitcase months ago, in the chill of January, and headed south for a cross-cultural term in Costa Rica. I told my mom that, during the week since my feet landed back on American soil, I’d been staying in the dorm with Beth, but that was a lie. I’d been staying at Tom’s house. I’m not complaining. That has its perks. But I was dying for my own bed, someplace to unpack my boxes and call home.
By the time Anthony drove away, leaving us to our own devices, we were miles high on endorphins, drenched in sweat, and getting very hungry.
“I’m starving!” I said. I’m always starving.
“Me too!” Beth said. “I could eat a saber-toothed tiger.”
“With cheese.”
“Gross! ” Nina made a face.
“What? You don’t like cheese?”
“No. I don’t like to think about eating animals.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Does anyone know how to cook?” Sheila asked. Her hand flew to her hair and began twisting. “Because I don’t.”
“Well. Sort of,” Beth said.
I started laughing. Do pop tarts count?
“I can make pancakes,” Nina offered. “And strawberry syrup out of strawberry jelly. It’s really easy. You just—“
“Eggs!” Sheila remembered. “I can make eggs!”
“I can cook,” Beth frowned, “but we don’t--“
“We have to go shopping!”
Beth ducked into the dark pantry and discovered what seemed, for a moment, to solve our problems: previous generations of students had abandoned a dusty bag of rice along with two containers of salt, the greasy dregs of some cooking oil, and a mostly-empty can of coffee.
“Look!” Beth displayed the grimy bag of grains. “Lunch!”
She disappeared inside again, rummaged noisily for a moment, mumbled a curse and then burst into wild laughter.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “What now?”
Beth stepped into the light holding the rice in one hand and a decrepit frying pan in the other. “This is the only thing we have to cook with.”
Nina giggled.
Sheila’s hand twisted faster.
I bit my lip, thinking. “You can’t make rice in a frying pan? Just a little?”
“I know! Wait!” Beth ran into our room and came bouncing back holding her little red hotpot high over her head like the Statue of Liberty. “Hotpot rice!”
“Hotpot rice! Hotpot rice!” Sheila howled as if it was the best punch line ever.
Nina squealed and cheered, thrilled at our collective ingenuity.
“Can you make rice in a hotpot?”
“Why not?” Beth shrugged. “You can make Ramen.”
That is certainly true, so I swallowed my doubts and went back to unpacking.
Maybe I could have saved the hotpot if I had seen Beth’s preparations: she filled it half way with rice and topped it off with water. I didn’t know how to cook, but I did score really high on an aptitude test for mechanical reasoning. ‘Mechanical reasoning’ doesn’t mean you can fix things; it means you can tell ahead of time something like that is never going to work.
We had to go to the Seven Eleven to buy peanut butter, jelly, and bread, instead, and the hotpot couldn’t be salvaged. No amount of soaking and scraping could reverse the damage. We kept it, for a while, on top of the refrigerator as a sentimental tribute to our first meal together, but, eventually, it went to hotpot heaven with the charred layer of rice still cemented to the bottom.

No matter what we did to the walls up there we could hardly have made them worse. The kitchen was a horrible dark-smudged yellow, and the rest of the rooms wore shades of tired grimy white; colors created originally by paint, then modified by a decade of grubby college students. We had the sense to call Barb, our eternally patient landlady, and ask her permission before we started painting. We promised to use only watercolors so as not to do any permanent damage. Barb said she didn’t care what we did as long as we cleaned it all up before we moved out. It wasn’t her house anyway, she just managed it for a friend who was a missionary or something.
Nina produced her palette of paints and told us to be careful not to get any green in the yellow. She set about depicting ghostly little waif spirits that wafted through the rooms looking uncannily like her. Beth unleashed colorfully exploding sunshines and lanky brown bodies that lounged and danced among flowers. Sheila says she can’t paint to save her soul and she got one of her anxiety attacks when we pressed her.
“No, you guys,” she begged, and immediately she started wheezing. “I’m not artistic like you are. I wish I was, but I’m not, ok? I just don’t feel comfortable. I’m not good at things like you guys are. You paint it. Seriously.” Then she had to rummage around for her inhaler.
I’m no artist either, but I love bright colors, so I painted my heart out. I warmed up with a few lopsided five-petal flowers that haven’t evolved much since fifth grade. Then I drew borders around the windows and doors, and filled them with shaky replicas of the indigenous designs that I learned to paint on pottery in Costa Rica. I hoped that if I got used to seeing them, my eyes would stop prickling every time I opened my notebook. The picture in my mind of the pursed lips of the potter as he patiently drew them there for me made a lump pop into my throat that I could hardly breathe around.
There were no rules. You could paint anything you wanted, any time you wanted. We kept the paints and brushes in a drawer of the giant Desk in the living room so everyone could use them. Even Sheila finally joined in, painting a giant row of ABC’s in a circle around the living room, a practice run for her future kindergarten classroom, she said. Within a week, she painted “PYSY WORLD SUCKS” and a stick figure on a crooked gallows because of how much she hated that class.
It didn’t have to be pretty. Before long, it wasn’t.

Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1



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