A MONTH AFTER the flood, my sister and I flew from our respective homes to see where our mother had lived out her final days. Neither of us had ever been to this city. The concierge at our hotel warned us about the neighborhood where our mother had resided, which had suffered particular devastation.
Don’t be there once the sun goes down, he said. Stay away from men you see unless they’re in uniform.
Our cab driver seemed unconcerned. He spoke over the radio’s mutter, telling us, in a heavy accent, about his daughter who was attending a good college up north, in a town not far from where I myself lived.
Whatever they say about disaster, he said, this is still a country of opportunity.
He pointed out various landmarks, all used-to-be’s now. He indicated some ruins where a barge off the swollen river had nudged over a shopping mall. The streets were brown with dried mud, weeds everywhere. Groups of young men mulled on every corner. Most were shirtless and skinny. We could tell how hot it was outside just looking at these boys, slick and red as newborns.
The driver let us off in front of the building where our mother had lived. Miranda leaned into explain that we wanted him to wait while we did our business, and he smiled and nodded. But as soon as she closed the door, he sped off.
Maybe he didn’t understand, I said.
The taillights on the car blinked twice as the driver slowed for a gaggle of boys crossing the street in front of him.
I hope his fucking daughter flunks out, Miranda said.
There was a lot of junk piled on the sidewalk. It was the same all down the street. Someone had been doing the work of emptying the buildings. We recognized some things from the house we’d grown up in. Miranda spun a floor lamp’s shade with her index finger. It rotated once and then stuttered to a halt. This ugly thing, she said.
Our mother had moved to this city three years ago to finish a novel that was set here. Caught up in our lives, we’d never visited. We hadn’t been able to understand why she’d needed to live here. She’d written other books about places she’d never traveled to. But this place was different, she’d told us. She said she’d never be forgiven if she got it wrong. By who? we’d wanted to know. Her previous books had all been lighthearted mystery novels, never the subjects of much scrutiny. I want to finally write another sort of book, she said. A serious book.
It’s downright soupy, Miranda said, swiping at her brow.
Across the street three boys walked a mud colored dog. The dog strained and coughed at the end of a quivering leash. The youngest of the boys was so skinny his nipples looked cross-eyed on his tiny torso. That’s how skinny he was. He eyed us with an attitude that was mildly academic.
I fumbled inside my pocket to retrieve the slip of paper on which I had written the code. I read it off to Miranda and she plugged it into the lock box hanging from the doorknob. We got inside the alcove just as the boys were crossing the street toward us. We heard them shouting, Hey!
The hallway reeked of what water had done. Bloated paneling heaved outward, swirling with ecstatic patterns of mold. I handed Miranda a facemask and put one on myself. The masks had been issued by FEMA or some other government agency; there were bins of them at the front desks of all the hotels in town. They came with a cartoon smile printed over where a person’s mouth would be and, next to that in a bubble as if the person were speaking, the legend, Let’s Keep It Positive! Miranda affixed hers upside down.
Mom had lived in a first floor unit, where the water had risen almost to the ceiling. The door to her place had been completely removed but leaned next to the empty frame. A slash of florescent pink paint above the knob indicated that a dead woman had been found inside. Our mother.
What is it we’re supposed to be doing here again? Miranda asked, squelching into what had been the living room.
She picked something off the floor, one of those novelty photo cubes. There were the three of us on a rowboat, 1989 or so. Our mother’s boyfriend had taken it, wobbling the boat as he stood to get the best angle, nearly falling in. The one with the beard that was a different color than his hair.
Miranda barked out something between a laugh and a sob. She went into a coughing fit, then took off the mask and looked at it.
I gotta get out of this place, she said.
If it’s the last thing we ever do, I sang back.
In the last hours of her life, my mother had texted us some breezy exclamations.
A little puddle in the front hall!
We’d both called, checking in, and kept tabs on the storm as it crept across the map on CNN. Things seemed okay until they weren’t. She said she was going to check on a neighbor and that was the last we heard.
So did she like, drown in here? Miranda was crying now, holding what had been our mother’s gigantic dictionary but now was only a floppy thing oozing pulp.
I still don’t get it, Miranda said. She was a good swimmer.
The boys with the dog were waiting for us on the street. The animal was frantic at the end of its leash, suspended on its hind legs, gasping.
You’re strangling the damn thing, Miranda said.
It’s a her, said the skinniest, youngest one. And you can’t strangle a dog. They don’t have the same kind of throats we do.
Miranda drew up to her full personhood, which had always been impressive. I was immediately less concerned about the boys mugging us.
I’m fairly certain you can strangle anything that breathes, she said.
The other two laughed at that, but the young one gave us another one of those studious looks.
Did you know that writer lady that lived here? he asked.
I told him that she had been our mother.
The kid absorbed this without getting sentimental in the least.
Well then, he said. This is your mother’s dog.
Our mother didn’t have a dog, Miranda said.
But who knew? All through our lives there had been a new boyfriend every couple years until she said she had given up men for good. But maybe not on companionship full stop. As if on cue, the dog plopped back on its haunches and tilted its head, looking for all the world like someone our mother would have spent time with. I reached for the leash and took it loosely into my hand.
What the fuck, Jordan, Miranda said.
It’s not as simple as that, the boy said, though the transaction had been one of the simplest I’d ever engaged in.
We’ve been taking care of this dog, he continued. We even gave her a name because we didn’t know what her old one was. Seems like that ought to be worth something. Your mother probably would have thought so.
That night we ate dinner in the storied restaurant of the hotel in the spared section of the city where Miranda’s wife had booked us rooms. The accommodations were finer than I was accustomed to but Miranda took it in stride, yawning archly underneath the crystal chandeliers, fluttering her fingers at the waiter for a second bottle of hundred-dollar cabernet. When he bent to pour it, I noticed a half-smoked cigarette rolling around in the pocket of his white shirt. A hundred dollars is what my sister had given the boys for supposedly taking care of our mother’s supposed dog.
Those kids never told us what they named it, she said now.
We’d taken the dog to a shelter that was shipping house pets to families that wanted them up north. I was surprised at the number of parakeets in cages. A pygmy goat trod circles inside a wire enclosure that had been erected, bleating its discontent. Efficient animal lovers in matching t-shirts did their work amidst the riotous barking and squawking of hundreds. The cats, of course, were silent. Our mother’s dog, if that’s what she had been, entered a crate without a fuss, turning around to lick at the bars. We wished her bon voyage.
I sipped the wine and tried to muster appreciation for its complexity for Miranda’s sake. The hotel had suffered through a flood of its own, fifty years ago. There was a plaque on the wall that showed how high the water had gotten. Our mother had finished her last book, but the manuscript had been rejected by her publisher a few weeks before the storm.
Why am I feeling guilty about the damn dog? Miranda said. She lifted a forkful of the chef’s famous rice dish to her lips, but dropped it with a clatter onto her plate.
Don’t, I told her, though I sort of did.
In the taxi on the way to the shelter, the dog had sat on my lap, soiling my jeans with its muddy feet, whining until I opened the window. For the rest of the ride, the remainder of the time she might have been considered ours, the dog stood with her forepaws on the armrest, bullet head thrust outside, yapping into the rushing wind.
DAVID SCHUMAN‘s fiction and nonfiction can be found in Fence, Colorado Review, Catapult, American Short Fiction and other magazines. He has received a Pushcart Prize and was recently awarded a MacDowell Fellowship. A chapbook, Best Men, is forthcoming in 2021 from Tammy Press. He teaches and directs the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.
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