My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

Off the Wisdom Wall
by Steve Schlich

The waning afternoon sun streams down upon the scarred land, playing shadow tricks with the concrete and cinder block rubble of what was once a massive enclosed structure. A child perhaps six years old picks his way across the sea of blacktop shards and jagged chunks of metal surrounding the ruins. He is dirty but apparently healthy. He examines everything in his path of progress with the mute intense interest of first discovery, though he has travelled the route many times before.

His goal, a smooth-on-one-side wall some three adults high and seven wide, faces the late day sun and is the only portion of the ancient structure that remains relatively intact. Emblazoned in barely visible block letters across the top is the phrase WAREHOUSE SOOPERMART. The village elders have learned the meaning of “warehouse” from their Book, the dic-tion-ary, and interpolated the rest: the dwelling of an Ancient named Soopermart.

That translation is minor detail; what draws the village dwellers—and the child—to the wall again and again are the mysterious scribblings in vegetable paint that appear periodically beneath the unchanging SOOPERMART legend. The slogans always wash away with the rain, but remain long enough to be memorized.

The boy reaches his destination and promptly ignores it, scrabbling in the shadowed rubble of the wall's shaded irregular side. Presently he tires of that investigation and returns to the smooth side of the wall to read the latest slogan, which is comprised of fragments of long-ago English: A man's life fits his deeds. The boy ponders this for a moment and gingerly extends his hand to touch the wall.

“Get away from there, Hermie!”

The words are a thunderclap against the afternoon's stillness. Hermie jerks his hand away from the wall as if from the snapping jaws of a mutant, and whirls. Two figures approach from the same direction he did. In the lead is the shouter, Hermie's father. He is not smiling.

“I've told you two dozen times, keep your hands off there! Just stay away from it!”

Hermie backs farther away and sits on a broken chunk of concrete with a look of dejection. His father and friend maneuver their emaciated bodies painfully from the rugged blacktop cobble to the flat, cleared area in front of the wall. The old man now wears a triumphant smirk.

“The kid never speaks, but he sure as hell listens when I do!”

His father's companion shrugs disapproval and sits down wearily. “Why be so harsh on him? He doesn't know any better. And there's no way he can reach the words to destroy them.”

That is true. Hermie's father can't reach the words himself unless he stands on the other's matchstick shoulders. Not likely. But he ignores the logic.

“The place is sacred, French. You know that as well as I do. Do you want our most precious artifact turned into a playground?”

“Remember last week's slogan,” French says. “I say the boy should be taught respect for the wall, not fear.”

Last week's slogan was: Children are precious.

“Fear will work well enough until he can understand the wisdom of the wall. If he ever does. Don't tell me how to raise my children.”

French shrugs again and scans the weather-smoothed surface of the wall for the new phrase, the new words of wisdom. He smiles as he reads them. A man's life fits his deeds. “Here is truth.”

Hermie's father plants his withered feet in one of a line of squares formed by a flimsy wooden framework parallel to the wall, and studies the phrase. “Come stand and memorize with me, French.”

French joins him at the makeshift altar and memorizes. There are others unable to make the journey here waiting at the village for this latest snippet of truth. After a time, Hermie's father steps out of his station and bows his head with a sigh. In another moment, French does the same.

“Don't you wonder where the words come from?” he asks.

It is the other's turn to shrug. “I used to, but I gave up. It's enough that they come, for me.”

“I suppose,” French agrees. “But who puts them there? And so high up! I know of no one except you or me who could even try to reach or climb so high.”

Hermie's father eyes French suspiciously and discovers the other man evaluating him in the same light. “The wall is smooth on this side,” he says. “Nothing to climb on. Anyway, we don't. I say call it Soopermart's work and be thankful.”

French nods. “The Book gives knowledge when you can understand, but nothing like the wisdom we find here.”

“The dic-tion-ary.” Hermie's father pronounces it with slow reverence. It is an aged volume, tattered and missing chunks, like the present world and its blast-scarred inhabitants. But they have it.

“Now there's a perfect example of why I shout at Hermie.”

The boy looks up briefly from his sullen station on the chunk of concrete, but returns to a private fantasy when he realizes that his father's reference to him is only criticism.

“I caught him playing with the Book yesterday. He could have destroyed it if I hadn't stopped him!”

“True enough. A man's life fits his deeds,” French recites with his eyes closed. He opens them to check his memory against the wall. “I'm ready to go,” he says.

“Let's go home!” calls Hermie's father after testing his own memory.

Hermie stands up cautiously. But for the flicker of interest at the mention of his name, he has ignored the conversation, apparently still stung by his father's admonition. Hermie is something his father calls a “functional idiot.” It somehow follows that no speech means no thought.

“Come on, Hermie! Try to think of two things at the same time. Time to go. Now move!”

Hermie scuttles along at an irregular speed, still distracted by everything. He cringes when the sky grows dark and thunder sounds on the way home. His father views the same sky with exhilaration. “The rain is coming, and that means tomorrow we'll have a new slogan. I can't wait to learn it!”

“A man's life fits his deeds,” French mutters. “I want to get back and mark this one on the village wall before I forget again. Good that we both memorize them now. No more mistakes.”

But the rain catches them just as they reach home and they have to wait the shower out before they can mark the village wall with their new wisdom. In the end it is Hermie's father who forgets the slogan and French who saves the day by remembering.

The ambulatory villagers read the words appreciatively, struggling to understand their meaning. That is difficult when using the dic-tion-ary. Without it, impossible.

Night falls soon after the rain stops and a third quarter moon creeps across the sky only after it has been dark for a long time. Moonlight violates the shelters of Hermie's father and French and the others in thin slivers, to reveal all sleeping the fitful sleep of the slowly dying.

Moonlight lends a soft glow to the burnt stick scratches French has made on the village wall. A man's life...

Moonlight pushes a line of illumination across the wisdom wall of Warehouse Soopermart and sweeps the shadows from a freshly washed surface. The flimsy wooden altar of squares leans on its end against the wall. It reaches nearly to the top. The dic-tion-ary's word for it is “ladder,” but Hermie's father has not discovered that yet. No diagram.

At the base of the altar/ladder lies a battered book, not the Book that Hermie's father guards so jealously, but another that spends most of its time hidden in the rubble on the other side of the wall. It's name is quo-ta-tions.

On the ladder that scarcely supports his meager weight stands Hermie, cup of vegetable paint in one hand and handmade brush in the other, giggling mutely and meticulously lettering the new slogan.

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

“Off the Wisdom Wall” was never actually rejected because I never sent it anywhere. I couldn't figure out a market. It was the result of an execise where I would choose a phrase—in this case “off the wall”—and then write a story using it in the title. This one's been rattling around in the closet since 1979.

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich