When my mother came back into the picture, we had already drowned.
First came the rains. Then the deluge. Then the constant wet. After we mired ourselves in the clean-up and after the insurance bailed and after we tired of it in our bones, it got worse. The whole town was dealing with the same thing. My father’s office dislodged from the earth and took off on a creek. Corporate decided not to open the branch again.
We couldn’t afford to stay elsewhere. And no one would want us, I was sure. First the electricity fizzled out and never came back on. Then the water never warmed. Then it all slowed to a trickle and stopped altogether. What was left were rusty trails where there used to be water and those trails led to the pipes that mazed through the walls and still, somehow, managed to drip despite the faucets having run nearly dry. I’d hear it at night as I tried to sleep. Dripdripdrip and then pingpingping as the droplets fell. Ghost water, perhaps. Later, the floor in the half bathroom buckled. Snapped. Bayonet-like pieces of wood jutted up from the floor and dared people to enter. We told them not to even bother because the toilet wouldn’t flush. Then visitors stopped coming anyway.
My father was a classical music aficionado. When I was younger, he tried so many times to get me to appreciate it. Listen. Listen here, do you hear the counterpoint? No, no I didn’t. I hated it, groaning theatrically when he insisted on impromptu lessons. But at this point, on a battery-operated radio, Bach’s fugues were one of the only things really alive in the house—not including the things with spores.
The cars were taken away on two different tow trucks. SUV. Minivan. They had to manually open the garage with a crowbar and carjacks. We didn’t go back into that space anymore. But I heard scrambling, like mice or bats and imagined the crawling habitat it had become.
Glass half empty, half full, my father would have said years ago, but now says little and we barely even have a clean glass, no less water to fill it. The house was 3000 square feet. Two car garage. Granite kitchen counters.
Soon, people started knocking at the door at all hours. Tonight they came at seven o’clock and my father shouted don’t you know not to come at dinnertime!? But we weren’t eating and it reminded me that I was hungry. In the pantry I found a can of white beans. I plucked them out of the viscous liquid and ate them one by one. They looked like oversized maggots and I felt I was eating from the carcass of our life.
The people at the door left, but I knew it was only a matter of time before they would return. Perhaps with more people. Perhaps to take me away—I was still just sixteen. Perhaps to take my father away—to lock him up, as if it’d be all that different from this jail in this subdivision where we seemed to be the only ones who couldn’t salvage our old lives.
“What are we going to do?” I asked my father. Offered him some beans, but he just ate from a bag of barbeque flavored chips. Sometimes he sucked on old hard candies, the kind that looked like little discs of gold.
“Wait,” he said.
“Wait. Not much we can do. Waiting. Dying. We’re all dying anyway. From the minute we’re born,” he said. He occasionally did this, break into vaguely philosophical platitudes. But I knew he wasn’t theorizing just then. He was actually dying.
“Dad, we can call Grandpa,” I said. “He’d help,” This wasn’t entirely true most likely. My grandfather blamed him for the unsuccessful marriage and subsequent departure of my mother. He never said so outright and I know he had contact with her occasionally. Last time I was at my grandfather’s apartment, I saw a photo on the fridge of a woman smiling at the beach, holding a blue drink in a bowl. He caught me looking but didn’t say anything.
“Garbage,” my father said. “He’s a leech.”
“Absolutely not,” he said as he unwrapped a candy. He crunched his barbecue chips, wiped his hand on his shirt, and left what looked like claw marks against his chest. He switched CDs in the stereo and the room filled with the dismal tones of my father’s preferred language.
I went in search of more food in the pantry, which was the size of a small bedroom but only contained a paltry supply of canned food, paper plates and napkins, rancid oils and dull spices. My father kept his chip stash elsewhere, the pockets of his sweater, beneath his chair, maybe. Still on the wall were faded and mildewed pieces of art from my childhood. Scribbles and dots deemed worthy of a gallery. My mom had put them up. They were over twelve years old; she left when I was four.
Anyway, I was searching for something to quell my hunger, but found little.
With each step through the house came an echo from when we were happy. When the framed photos on the wall weren’t shrouded in a sticky dirt-like substance or fogged up. When the wallpaper didn’t peel like an orange that had skin concealing rot on the inside. The peel didn’t give that away. It wasn’t soft in your hand when you held it.
When I went to collect the mail. The neighbor waved and I waved back but they didn’t smile so I didn’t either. In the mail, circulars announced sales at the grocery store, white envelopes were punctuated with red and yellow and pink. They reserved these for people like me. My family anyway. My father really. It’s just us left in the hull of the house.
He got sick. I got sick. Mold, they said. But we couldn’t do anything about it, and we no longer had insurance, so I traced my finger in the charcoal fungus that carried up the wall. In cursive wrote the name of my mother, as if calling to her. Come back, my message said.
I got better, marginally. Still had my inhaler. I at least left the house for much of the day. My father, he refused to use the inhaler, didn’t want to—couldn’t—spend the money on the medicine and sat wheezing in the creaking rocking chair, moldering blush colored carpet beneath his cracked toes.
I went to visit my grandfather on the other side of town, which I occasionally did, but I hadn’t been in a while. We never talked much beyond what I was studying in school and what sport was in season and how the local team was doing. This time, I think he knew. I showered there, pouring creamy coconut shampoo on my head until the bottle emptied completely. Stuffed myself with whatever food he had: white bread torn and chunky with cold butter, syrupy peaches, and fruity low-fat yogurts from his fridge. I went to school.
I did well—honor roll (my father said exposure to classical music in children increases aptitude)—so no one noticed or cared. Came home from school and still the scritchscratch of the splintered rocking chair and the whistle of my father’s sandpaper lungs came at regular intervals, just as it had when I left in the morning. The woodpeckers outside pecked staccato bursts against the house. I used the showers at school sometimes too—after the doors were unlocked, before the other students arrived. Tried to fill up on free lunch, but they monitored that like we were in jail. Sometimes an extra packet of soup crackers wound up in my pocket. A few times I plucked other students’ half-eaten bags of chips from the trash. Filched rice crispy treats from the bake sale table.
I placed the mail on the dining table, on top of the already large and haphazard pile. Bills unpaid. Sales long past. Credit card solicitations. If there was a personal letter in there, we never found it.
“My batteries died,” my father said by way of greeting. He caressed a CD as if it were a gemstone. Rainbows reflected on the ceiling and the house was otherwise surprisingly silent. And then he coughed—a racking double-over kind of attack. These were becoming more frequent. The word “rattle” came to mind right away. Baby rattle, rattlesnake, death rattle.
Two days later my grandfather came to the house. He let himself in, using a key given to him long ago. He didn’t live far away and I knew he had to pass the house to get from his apartment to the grocery store.
“Hello?” he called. I was sitting on the stairs reading The Fall of the House of Usher, which seemed so perfectly appropriate I devoured every word to find out what might happen to us. Because the stairs weren’t carpeted it was one of the few places I could sit without the wet house seeping into my bones.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. Since the flood, while I visited him several times, he came to the house once and that was only to ask my father for money. He hadn’t known the money could have run out so soon. He was sent away empty-handed with the door literally hitting him on the way out.
And now he was back. I wasn’t really surprised. I knew it was going to be a matter of time before he got involved. But I wasn’t sure what the angle would be. He looked older than he was, skinny people do that, I’ve noticed. His hair was shock white, long—to his chin, and thin; I could see his dark scalp underneath the strands—he usually wore a baseball cap and I saw he had taken it off and held it in his hands—some old and weird ritual of manners. And I then saw he wasn’t alone. The same woman as the woman in the photo with the big tropical drink was behind him. My mother, who I hadn’t seen in years. My mother. My mom. I did and did not recognize her. She was thin, wore too much and too-bright eye make-up, and her hair fell in a long straight sheet. I noticed I was taller.
“Louis, what is the meaning of this?” she said, bypassing me in the dark hallway. I was just a shadow on the rotting walls. She went into the adjoining living room, my father’s space.
“My baby is sick. My baby is living like this? What are you doing to my baby!” she roared at him as he rocked, rocked, rocked, and crunched, crunched, crunched. I wasn’t sure who she was talking about. I checked her belly and saw nothing swollen. Was it me? Was I the baby? But no, here I am mom. Here I am. I’m almost a man, I’m so grown. And I’m fine. See me. Touch me. Know me.
I’d been haunted by her for so long. And now here she was and she wasn’t a ghost at all. She was a live person. My grandfather hung back, adjusting tilted pictures on the wall to make the house more presentable. I was old enough to understand that it wasn’t me that my mother cared about. It was baby me that she was worried about; the me she carried for ten months, the me she held onto when I cried as a toddler. It was the ghost of me. The real me, the living, breathing me, she wanted nothing to do with.
“Georgia,” my father said. “Hi.” He said this casually, and I admired him for it. He did not stand or make excuses.
“Georgia, I need some batteries. C.,” my father said. “Or D, maybe.”
“Which is it?” she said. “C or D, Louis?” The curl of her lips looked like a smile, but I knew it wasn’t.
“Let me check.” He flipped the small stereo upside down. His earnestness was something she had fallen in love with. My father told me that on one particularly talkative night before the flood.
“Louis. What is this?” My mother asked. She didn’t wait for an answer. “This is not okay. This house is not okay.” He rocked and coughed and rocked some more.
“Georgia,” he said, after a time. “I know this isn’t what you wanted for our son.” She tapped her fingernails against each other. They were shiny pink—hopeful, as if she were about to go on a tropical vacation again. I thought about the photo on my grandfather’s fridge.
I looked over at my father and saw him the way my mother did. In the shadowy afternoon sun, I realized that he had been sinking since long before the storm. After the storm, he sunk completely as if he had iron shackles on his feet. I thought I knew what it felt like: to walk across the ocean floor to see the life there and the muck beneath your toes. But I had no idea.
“You should go live with your grandfather,” my mother said as she finally turned her attention to me. My grandfather too had made his way into the room. She wasn’t asking me a question, but I knew it was one. If I left, I would probably have to go to a different school. If I left, would I visit my father? The distance wasn’t far, but once I was gone, could I come back?
I listened to the clock tick, one of the few things that still functioned in the house, despite its arms holding the wrong time. My father wasn’t looking at me. His breathing was an accusation enough, wheezing and begging me to either cut off the pipe or clear the muck away.
“Why not with you?” I asked my mother, whom I skirted by to stand next to my father. I put a hand on his shoulder. Beneath the flannel I could feel the point where his clavicle protruded at his shoulder. We had to map most of the two hundred and six human bones a few months ago in bio. I aced the test, but then forgot most of what I’d memorized, except I remembered clavicle. What a whole lot of bones. And they all work together to keep us upright, most of the time. I lifted my hand, didn’t want to feel the sharpness there. I walked the border of the room, running my hand along the walls. In here, the mold hadn’t yet arrived. In here, the twilight sung its bird song. In here, I felt the damp on my face, but could pretend it wasn’t me crying.
“Well, mom, why not?”
She didn't answer. Didn't need to. She didn’t care. I knew if I chose to stay in this house, sooner or later, there would be repercussions. I said, well, that’s that then, huh? and headed toward the front door, but my grandfather blocked the way. But I knew the house and its many ways out well. I turned around and left through the kitchen instead.
Outside, the rain began almost immediately. In that moment I thought I knew what drowning felt like. Where would I go? Would I send postcards that said wish you were here! and would my father still be here to receive them? I walked for hours in the rain, making concentric circles in the blocks that surrounded our house. The rain eventually let up. My grandfather’s car disappeared from the driveway. I heard music seeping out of the broken living room window. He had found batteries. The music was unfamiliar. I knew I’d go back in and ask him about it.