Who Will Water the Wallflowers?
The girl collects Cha-Cha in the belly of her housecoat and climbs the stairs to higher ground
The day before the flood, the girl slices lemons into a wide-mouthed Mason jar. She has been reading about storage devices in the sunroom. Jars will replace Tupperware, she reads, for leftovers. They will store tulips, sourdough starter, kombucha. Ms. Feliz must have read the article, too, because these vessels fill her larder. Crystal-cut pots of marmalade line the bottom shelf, and above that, quarts of beans and crumpled tongue chipotles. They appear to the girl as display cases. She expects to find a flask of dead bees on the shelf, or water beetles. A Mesozoic crab. The girl’s larder contains no such jars. Her mother buys items in cardboard boxes. Often, the boxes remain in the cupboard long after they have been emptied. Neither she nor her mother likes to untuck the seals and flatten the cases into bright cards of recycling. Their hands navigate around them instead. They rattle each box of Kraft Dinner or Hamburger Helper before they lift it from the shelf.
Ms. Feliz left last week for her time-share in Palm Springs. She is paying the girl $10 a day to pet her cat, Cha-Cha, and water the lemon tree. She also left a pint of unpeeled eggs in the fridge. When Ms. Feliz babysat the girl ten years ago, she prepared eggs at every meal: a soft egg with toast soldiers for breakfast; hard boiled with cantaloupe for lunch. At dinner, she carved the eggs into triangles and tossed them with potatoes.
Boiled eggs for you, Ms. Feliz wrote on the checklist she stuck to the fridge. Feed the spares to the raccoons.
The week the girl cat-sits for Ms. Feliz, the rain starts. Fat toads fall from the sky and fill the hanging geranium pots. The soil cannot contain it; water courses over the thin terracotta bowls, like open mouths. In the kitchen, she listens to the rain stamp on the roof while she carves lemons. Ms. Feliz grows the lemon tree in an earthenware pot on the counter. Thirteen fruits nipple from the leaves and bend the branches into the sink. The acid bites her fingertips as she works, revealing all her nicks and holes: a paper cut on her thumb, a torn nail bed. After she quarters two lemons, she washes her hands and pours cold water into the jar.
Across the street, Mr. Bradley pulls his Mazda into his driveway and emerges from the driver’s seat. A folded umbrella swings on his wrist. She often passes her neighbour on the walk home from school. She knows his stance from the bottom of the road: stiffly stacked, like a candlestick. He wears a suit jacket while he tosses a stick for his dog. Despite the office clothes, she wonders if he works from home. He is always there. She steps outside to help her mother with the groceries or to call Ms. Feliz’s cat, and he appears on cue, in ironed slacks and flip-flops, to collect the mail. His wife is a thin woman who wears needle-heeled shoes and cranberry jumpsuits. She works in town, the girl thinks. Her heels click down the driveway every morning at 7 a.m.
The girl winds the metal ring over her lemon water. She leaves the jar in the fridge and removes a tin of Cha-Cha’s cat food. He hasn’t come inside yet, which is unusual in such rain. He is a delicate breed, a Turkish angora. This rain could wash him away. She spoons the pâté into his dish, then opens the front door. The rain chutes off the porch roof. Even the eavestroughs overflow.
“Cha-Cha,” she calls.
Across the street, Mr. Bradley reopens his car door, then shuts it again. Rain fills his collar. His hair drips down the thin line of his suit.
“Oh, hi,” he shouts from his driveway. “Didn’t see you there.”
“Hey, Mr. Bradley.”
“Ms. Feliz working you to the bone again? ”
“Just feeding her cat.”
“How’s school? ”
“Learn something? ”
She never knows what to say to that. He asks her every day. To avoid replying, she crouches to the porch step and scans the cedar shrubs.
“Cha-Cha!” she calls.
When she stands, Mr. Bradley hasn’t moved.
“Today we watched a movie on geysers,” she offers.
He smiles through the rain. The water spiders his eyebrows.
“I know a joke about geysers,” he says.
Cha-Cha appears from the shadows and tears between her heels.
“It probably wouldn’t be appropriate.”
The wet shag of Cha-Cha’s tail rounds the hallway corner. She turns after him.
“Got to go, Mr. Bradley. Good night.”
The designers built every home in Copper Waters off the same floor plan. Two bedrooms, one bath. A row of cedar shrubs separates each driveway, and behind the shrubs one square cartwheel of grass. To identify her house without door numbers, she must count the lots from the entrance. Or recognize the parked cars. Or estimate her x and y coordinates on the Apple Crescent parabola. All the streets in the subdivision are named after fruit trees. Once, she conducted a study on suburban nomenclature for her Career and Personal Planning class. She researched the names of behavioural health facilities, rehabilitation centres, and ready-home subdivisions. Sandy Gallop, Lavender Hill, Arbutus Grove. The titles were indistinguishable.
Both her mother and Ms. Feliz left their rooms as sold. The decorator painted them a starchy colour, like blended potatoes. Only the bathrooms were spared, and these became her favourite spaces. An artist stencilled plants on the walls with such care, the girl can identify them in her farmer’s almanac. Irises spring behind the taps, and fists of hyacinth. Wisteria fills the tub. A spray of lilac peels off the wall and nods into the toilet.
The girl enters the bathroom after she finds Cha-Cha. Tonight more than ever, she feels the heat of the photosynthesis, the roots on the wall silently sucking. She fetches the comb from the soap dish and joins the cat in the living room. On a hand towel behind the door, a peony spreads its petals and belches.
The fur of a Turkish angora resembles feathers, each hair free to lift from the rest, sensitive to breeze, gathered in a pearly crest around the sternum. Sometimes she expects Cha-Cha’s tail to winnow behind him like a peacock’s. In rain, however, he loses all majesty. The plumes hang off his bones in wet clumps and cowlicks. She picks through them with the comb. She often spends the night when she cat-sits; her mother does not mind. She likes to watch TV programs in the evening, like Wife Swap, or ballroom dance competitions on PBS. In the day, her mother collects basalt stones. She stalks the river and lifts stones from the stream bed to sell to local spas.
Outside, the rain still falls; inside, the burnt cream walls surround the girl like a milk carton. Cha-Cha fans across her lap, his throat on her wrist, until he stretches and pins her jeans to her kneecap. She rakes the comb down his spine. His hair dries and lifts. A car passes outside and parts the water on the pavement with its tires.
Then she hears footfalls. Shoes on the flagstones, the porch. A key in the door, though Ms. Feliz won’t return for another week. Whoever’s out there has not tried the right key. The teeth grind in the cylinder as the person tugs it free. They try another. The brass rattles against the door plate. The person swears. They try a third key.
The girl sits very still. She wills the cat to stay with her, but Cha-Cha mews and leaps to the carpet. The girl scans the room for weapons of self-defence. She finds few. She arms herself with a decorative copper bowl.
“Hey, let me in,” shouts the man on the porch. His shoes sound light. If she is not mistaken, he’s wearing leather soles.
The man thumps the panel of glass that frames the door.
“Miranda, I’m locked out.”
The girl does not know a Miranda. She rises to her feet and squints through the peephole. The intruder leans with his arm against the glass, a shamrock hat on his head. He looks as if he is trying to push the house over.
“Miranda!” he calls again, and looks straight at her. She recognizes him then. A flush of goosebumps flowers over her back. She clears her throat.
“This isn’t your house, Mr. Bradley.”
She unlatches the door and opens it. The rain has soaked his hat. A vein of water rolls down his neck from the brim.
He steps onto the welcome mat and braces his hand on the door frame.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
This hasn’t happened since New Year’s, when Colin and Leslie Hall stumbled home to the Singhs’ and tried to make an omelette.
“I’ll get my umbrella, Mr. Bradley.”
The thick tabs of his eyelids sink and flash open. He regards her with suspicion, as if she might be a dream, or a house gnome. He wrings his hat between his fists. Water spills down his thigh. She steps into her rubber boots.
“It’s you,” he says.
She pinches his coat sleeve and leads him down the flagstones.
“What’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral? ”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s one less drunk.”
She looks both ways and guides him across the street.
“Oh, here’s one,” he says. “Say ‘Irish wristwatch’ five times fast.”
“Try your key here, Mr. Bradley.”
He doesn’t move. She steers his hand toward his pocket.
“Say it,” he says.
“Good night, Mr. Bradley. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.”
In the troposphere, the clouds drop sacs of water too heavy for the sky. They streak to earth and fill the storm drains, flowerpots, blue plastic pools. The rain spills down the runnel of the road, the pavement worn by all-season tires, Rollerblades, the cloven hooves of mule deer. The water searches for hold in ground softer than cement, in the mossy ditches and, farther, the woods, in hot sinks of soil where eyeless creatures rise to sip at the roots of trees. Here, the Copper River dunks the cow parsnip over their heads, and takes the skunk cabbage, too. The birch trunks wade in to their shins.
In the morning, the girl wakes to the tick of Ms. Bradley’s heels down the flagstones. Rain drums the roof, fills the window boxes; the trailing geraniums haven’t got a hope in hell. Ms. Bradley’s car barks to life. The windshield wipers hum on. The girl hears them from her pillow.
On the other side of the wall, across the driveway, over the cedar shrubs, her mother stands in their kitchen and boils water for coffee. She toasts a crumpet in her convection oven. She pours orange juice into last night’s brandy snifter. She swirls the liquid and warms the glass between her palms. She will be glad when Ms. Feliz returns, so her daughter will watch Wife Swap with her again, or ballroom dance competitions on PBS. Her sister married last year, and she and her daughter wore matching mint dresses. She imagines that they will wear these dresses as they watch ballroom dance. They will say words like “floorcraft” and know the difference between a rumba and a bolero.
Last week, she collected twenty kilograms of stones and emptied them into her bathtub. They will remain there until the rain stops, when she will lay them on a towel to sun-dry. Perhaps it’s best her daughter lives next door, where she may use the shower. For herself, she rinses her armpits with a cloth. She sprays body mist. Now and then, she showers at the gym. Every night she visits the gym, she sees Miranda Bradley on the cross-trainer in bone-pinching Lycra. Miranda Bradley squeezing ninety pounds on the abductor/adductor machine. Miranda Bradley hinged by her hip blades in full-locust pose over a Swiss ball. When Miranda Bradley enters the change room at the same time as her, the girl’s mother waits for a private stall.
Now she sips brandy-laced orange juice and plunges the coffee grinds and butters her crumpet. Twenty paces east, in Ms. Feliz’s guest bedroom, the girl tucks her sheets under her mattress. Cha-Cha sits on the windowsill and strikes the glass with his paw. The girl answers in English. She says, “I am making the bed just now. Hold your horses.” The cat spots an eye of dust on the floor and curls his shoulders. His tail swipes back and forth against the frame. The girl joins him at the window. Four raccoons file from the cedar shrubs. They march tallest to smallest, their eyes flashing like coins from their veils, their bellies wiping the grass. The girl fetches the boiled eggs from the fridge and greets the raccoons outside. She has never seen a raccoon in the daytime before. Perhaps their hovel flooded. Or do they sleep in trees? The girl knocks an egg against the porch step and peels the shell. She cups the soft moon in her palm and stretches her arm.
Across the street, Mr. Bradley stands so close to the window his breath mists the glass and he must clear two holes for his eyes. Also, he wears his wife’s housecoat. He can’t wear his own anymore, because last week he got food poisoning from Papa Dum’s. The terry cloth still smells tangy to him, of gastric acid and ghee. He does not tell his wife he borrows her housecoat. He is unsure why, but over the week it turned into an item to conceal.
From the sitting room, he can hear their Barista Express pressurize two thimbles of espresso; he has not yet learned how to adjust the settings to one thimble. The news plays behind him on TV. The murmur keeps him company, like in a café. Though this morning he listens for a reason. Colin from 1216 heard a rumour of a planned dike breach. They want to divert the river from the next suburb, which is larger, he said. It is unclear to Mr. Bradley whether the subdivision is larger or the residents’ incomes are, but he needs to know when to start sandbagging. Worst-case scenario, he owns an inflatable air mattress. He heard that in New Orleans, people floated on anything they could: bookshelves, nightstands. An air mattress should do better than that. They’re engineered to float.
Across the road, the girl from 1213 approaches a troop of raccoons. He worries the beasts will nip her fingers, or contaminate her hand with fecal matter. He watched a program on raccoon roundworms last week. The parasites can cause blindness in humans. The girl crouches in Esther Feliz’s yard and reaches her hand to them. Rain stretches the tank top down her ribs.
The girl has not brushed her hair yet. Raindrops trickle down her part and harden the knots into clumps of steel wool. The bushiest raccoon traipses toward her. She plants an egg for him in the grass. He dips the egg in a lawn puddle and lifts it to his mouth. The other raccoons sniff toward her, too. Rain has slicked their pelts into spikes around their necks. She deposits another egg. Across the road, the shadows shift in Mr. Bradley’s window. He’s wearing a housecoat, she realizes. The cloth is lilac. His breath fogs the top pane, except for two finger-width gaps for his eyes. For the first time, she feels outnumbered. And cold. Her nightshirt’s so wet, she must hold up the armholes. She tips the eggs onto the lawn and retreats inside.
In the ripe, photosynthetic bathroom, she shucks her clothes over the shower rod. She stands blue and naked in the mirror and rubs her shoulders with Ms. Feliz’s lotion. In the mirror cupboard, she finds six vials of oil. She selects primrose and wipes it over each wing of her collarbone. Ms. Feliz’s tortoiseshell housecoat hangs on the door. She slips inside it and leaves the bathroom, the hem trailing her heels. She would like to phone her mother, so Mom will microwave her a cup of chocolate and sit on the love seat to parse her hair. But the longer she waits, the sweeter the nausea she feels behind her belly button. She felt a similar sickness after Mom recycled her diorama of a Kwagiulth longhouse. In return, the girl assaulted her National Geographics with a hole punch. She knelt with a stack from 1994 to 1998 and opened everyone’s pupils. Her mother cried, then forgave her. The girl felt terrible. But as she punched holes into Jane Goodall’s eyes, into the eyes of race camels and a grey reef shark, she sensed for the first time her imprint on the world. Today she does not sense her imprint, but the thrill of endurance. She folds her homesickness into one chamber of her heart and tastes it when she chooses, like a salt lick. She stands in the living room now and faces away from her mother’s window, toward the Bradleys’ house. Mr. Bradley kneels on his carpet and kisses a giant, black-shelled crab. An air mattress, she realizes. She watches from behind her curtain. Her cheeks fill with salt.
Twenty paces west, the girl’s mother rinses the grit from her river stones. She separates them by size: thigh stones, facial stones, molar-sized stones for the toes. When her daughter returns, she will book them both a massage. They will lie side by side, which they have not done since last summer. Therapists will map stones up their spines, the same stones she lifted from the river. They will plant stones behind their knees and sink them into their foot arches. She does not remember when her daughter became the only person she thinks about. She knows her shoe size, her jean size. She knows which shops in the mall fit small, and that her daughter will not wear a pencil skirt because she thinks her ribs are boxy. The girl’s mother prefers this shopping to her own, which she has not done in a while. She selects boughs of teen dresses from the racks, and the clerk folds them in tissue. She thinks about dinner as she kneels before her bathtub and washes stones. On the first night her daughter slept away, she still cooked her meal. She arranged green beans on the plates with rice and breasts of Shake’n Bake chicken. She tented the plates with foil and knocked on her daughter’s door. They dined at Ms. Feliz’s table, which looked the same as her table, except the salt and pepper shakers were shaped like teeth. But her daughter said she wanted to cook for herself next time. She called it an exercise in independence, which she will present to her CAPP class. The girl’s mother still cooks for two, because it feels silly to measure one serving of rice, or sixty grams of linguine. Now she has half a pizza in her fridge, one bowl of angel hair pasta, and one half of a trout. She has never liked leftovers. They make her feel old.
Twenty paces east, the girl sits in Ms. Feliz’s window and watches Mr. Bradley step onto his front porch. He has changed from the housecoat into cream slacks and a cashmere sweater. He carries a box in his hands. When he jogs off the porch, he ducks under it to avoid the rain. He crosses the road and knocks on her door. She knows he has seen her: she’s sitting in a window. You can’t ignore someone if you’re sitting in a window. He rings the doorbell. She tightens the sash around her waist and answers it.
“You’re home,” he says.
“Hi, Mr. Bradley.”
The rain has notched blemishes into his cashmere sweater. They look to her like a colony of ticks.
“I wanted to apologize if I scared you last night.”
“I brought you chocolates.”
He presents a plastic-wrapped box, beaded with the same wet ticks as his shoulders.
“It’s green. For St. Patrick’s Day.”
The cardboard is black, not green, but the chocolates are filled with peppermint, so perhaps that’s what he means.
“Can I come in? ”
He removes his shoes and follows her inside. She sets the chocolates on the mantel. By the time she turns, he has already sat down on the love seat. She does not wish to sit beside him. On the only armchair, Cha-Cha sleeps in an immovable crescent.
“Would you like a glass of lemon water? ” she asks.
She fetches the jar from the kitchen and pours two glasses. The wheels of lemon do not pass the shoulders of the jar, but she wants one. Before she has time to consider, she plunges her hand in. She clasps a lemon slice and squeezes it like a fish. After she’s done it, she’s not sure what she was thinking. She lifts the lemon to her mouth and sucks its pale triangles. Her gums shrink. She wipes her hands on her housecoat and carries the glasses to the living room.
“Merci beaucoup,” says Mr. Bradley, in terrible French. He pronounces the p as in “chicken coop.”
“De rien,” she replies automatically.
“They still make you take French class? ”
She lowers herself onto the edge of Cha-Cha’s armchair.
“That’s good. The French know how to do basic tasks very well. Like toast,” he says. “And kissing.”
She tries not to look at his sock. He has crossed his leg so the foot floats at his knee. The argyle drips off his toes and smells of overripe bananas.
“Learn anything good today? ” he asks.
“Does your wife work Saturdays? ”
He looks surprised at the mention of her.
“Yes. How’d you know? ”
“I’m perceptive, I guess.”
One kilometre upriver, before the mayor can issue sandbags and order a planned dike breach to minimize damage to the surrounding communities, and indeed as the mayor’s public relations manager, Mindy, books a helicopter to ferry him to the site of the breach, so that he may explain the benefits of a controlled dike release to the media and members of the concerned public, and as the mayor himself stands at the Tim Hortons in town with his executive assistant, Marcelle, to select donuts from the pastry counter, because he’s a city official who arrives at a controlled dike release with a box of crullers for his staff and crew, and back in Copper Waters, as the girl’s mother tires of waiting for the sun and dries stones with a hand towel, then fills the pockets of her Barbour coat so she may show her daughter next door—she always shows her daughter first; she thinks of it as a blessing—and as the girl sits in the living room with Mr. Bradley and wills the phone to ring, or for her mother to knock on the door, or anyone, even Mormons, even the Census, and as Mr. Bradley stands and says, “Want to see something cool? Be right back,” and jogs across the street for the air mattress, as he opens his door, one kilometre upriver, the water in the soil loosens a tree’s roots from the dike—not the one they intended to release but another dike, smaller, closer to the Copper Waters subdivision, and as the tree collapses, its root system tears a score of soil from the levee and water bursts through, charts a new channel toward the subdivision at the rate of 500 cubic feet per second, or enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every three minutes. Mr. Bradley steps back onto his porch with his velveteen air mattress. The plastic is heavy; it forces him to stoop. He almost does not see the mud water heave from the creek. A sinewy rush of it, the brown of upchucked peanuts, overtaking the sidewalk ginkgo trees and Colin Hall’s Chevrolet Camaro. The girl watches Mr. Bradley from her living-room window. She turns when he does. The water rages down the street—eight houses up, then seven, then six. Twenty paces west, her mother stands in her living room, pockets filled with stones. The water crashes over the cedar shrubs and shudders against her windows. She cannot see out. The water seeps under the door.
The girl collects Cha-Cha in the belly of her housecoat and climbs the stairs to higher ground. On the first floor, water already laps at the heels of the dining chairs, the sides of the couch. She watches the flood from Ms. Feliz’s bedroom window, which sits opposite her mother’s bedroom window. She shouts for her mother, but her voice is licked away by rain and the surge of water. Outside, the river has bowled Mr. Bradley off his feet, but he clutches the air mattress and drags it under his chest, so that he shoots downriver with the stolen debris—a yellow kids’ slide, a backyard barbecue, and four corpulent raccoons that paddle beside him in a row. The girl can reach the roof from the attic, which is not really an attic but a series of questionable floorboards and raw insulation. She considers staying in here, to keep out of the rain, but the air smells of itch and sawdust. The roof hangs low enough to open the hatch. She sets Cha-Cha down and hoists herself up. She stands on Ms. Feliz’s roof and searches for her mother on their own roof. Or the Singhs two houses down. Or the Halls. But she sees no one. The rain rolls down her neck. Inside, fatty brown water laps at the first stair. It fills the bathroom. The wisteria sucks at it, the hyacinths stand straighter. The peonies open their petals and sing.
This appeared in the June 2014 issue.