Short Story Nor Let the Deep Swallow Me Up
This, I knew, was no mere dream: At long last the flood had come to cleanse this preposterous city.
Thirsty, I awoke to the shushing patter of rain. It sprayed through my window screen and misted the linoleum tiles. I had dreamed a woman with kelp hair and lichen skin lay beneath me on a black liquid floor. She was enormously pregnant, and when she unzipped her trembling belly a stampede of spiders came screaming out. They poured like mudslide down the hills and through the streets, consuming cars and children in a roiling darkness. As I pulled on my clothes, I thought how it’s every man’s secret hope that he’ll live in the midst of some great catastrophe. This, I knew, was no mere dream: At long last the flood had come to cleanse this preposterous city.
I was still living at the Open Arms group home with the addicts and the registered offenders, the paranoid insomniacs and the sidewalk preachers. Each of us suffered under the weight of some dark knowledge, and for this the world had deemed us ugly. I took the knife from under my pillow and went down the hall for a drink of water.
Ox was in the bathroom, trying to find a vein in his foot. I leaned on the jamb and said, “If we stay here we’ll drown.”
I told him everything within a mile of the river was going to be underwater by morning.
“You and your floods,” he said. “Look at these things.” Ox had the syringe in his teeth. “I used to have earthworms in this hoof.” He had a bad case of clawfoot from a lifetime of tight cowboy boots. I drank from the tap while Ox fished around under his skin. At last he said, “The amazing Ox! The bottomless phlebotomist!” I watched him draw a triumphant cloud of blood into the syringe before plunging it empty. He closed his eyes and waited. When he muttered and flicked his foot, I knew the dope was weak.
“Want a chaser?” I asked.
I dug my hand in my pocket and brought out a baggie of pills. We had something like a marriage going in terms of shared assets.
Ox swallowed one dry and said, “What’s these?”
“Study aides.” I paired two Adderalls with a Percocet and washed them down with another pull from the tap. And for our noses I crushed one of each with my bus card.
Ox crammed his bare foot back into its pointy rodeo boot. “Say, you want to make some money tonight? I know a guy pays cash for shopping carts.”
“I’m telling you, the flood. If we don’t get out tonight it’ll be too late.”
Ox said, “I don’t know, man. It ain’t raining that hard.”
“Just watch,” I told him. “It’s going to pour until the treetops are snagged full of corpses.”
Ox reached toward the ceiling and twisted his body like a kid coming up from his nap. “That’s good medicine,” he said. “You got any more?”
I patted my pocket. “Depends.”
He pulled at the skin on his Adam’s apple. Now he was listening.
I said, “I know a place where we can ride this thing out, but I need your help.”
I asked him if he still had his car.
Ox thought about this a moment. Then he said, “Most likely.”
Wearing trash-bag ponchos we set out into the rain, which swept sideways across our faces and glimmered in beatific streetlamp coronas. It shot across sidewalks from shuddering downspouts into curbside streams, whirlpooled over leaf-caked storm drains, and rushed downhill in countless tributaries toward its mother.
I asked Ox where he’d left his ride. He was cupping his hands around his eyes, looking into car windows. He went into the street and tested door handles.
“I’m pretty sure it’s one of these,” he said.
I peered down Stuart Avenue to where it ended, three blocks away. It met Riverfront Road in a T-junction, beyond which the riverbank was overlaid with broad cement steps. The steps were recent, part of another attempt at urban renewal. You could walk gently into the river like a wife of Ramses bathing in the Nile. The City Council had envisioned yuppies in kayaks and nuclear families with picnic baskets, children frolicking like they would never die.
I looked back uphill and saw a band of ghosts descending toward me. They came floating down the middle of the road with white billowing bodies and solemn faces, singing “Roll Away the Stone.”
“Ox,” I said. “Hey, Ox.”
He was on his back, frisking the underside of a bumper. “Give me a sec,” he called.
I stood gawking up the hill, water running into the neck- and armholes of my garbage bag. As the ghosts approached the intersection of Stuart and Fourth, I saw they were followed by a bunch of people dressed in soft pinks, greens, and blues.
Ox climbed out from under the car and said, “Here come the converts.”
“Them people in sheets. They’re going down to the river to get baptized.”
“In this storm?” I said. “After midnight?”
Ox was crawling beneath another car. “Man, don’t you know it’s Easter? They’re coming down from the vigil mass at Saint Luke’s.”
The disciples were passing us now. The ones in front wore togas that clung to their bodies and whipped furiously behind them. A fat priest in white vestments led the way, tone-deaf and loud. The rest of the congregation followed the catechumens. They wore pastel button-downs and flower-print dresses. Some of them fought the wind with umbrellas, but most had surrendered. The procession glided by us, down through the empty intersections, past the unpainted cinder block warehouses and chain-link lots piled with scrap metal. I stood watching as they paraded down to the river, singing defiance to the misery around them.
I crossed the street to where Ox was squatting on his hams with both arms inside the wheel well of a rusted station wagon. After a minute of grunting and cussing, he gave a happy yelp and came up holding a magnetic hide-a-key box. We got in the car and sat there puddling the vinyl upholstery. Ox’s knees poked up on either side of the steering column. As he slid the seat back, I asked if he’d ever actually owned a car.
“More or less,” he said.
I should have known. Whenever Ox managed to get a day’s work, he’d spend his pay by morning. But the cocktail of pills was kneading its optimism into my flesh: This car wouldn’t be missed after the river came and swallowed the downtown slums.
“Where to?” Ox said.
“You want me out on the bridge in this weather?” He turned the ignition. “Christ, okay, goody.”
We crept over the Penny Bridge all but blind. It had seemed windy enough in the Stuart Avenue corridor; out on the open river it was like getting blasted with a fire hose. Ox put on the hazard lights and rode first gear at around five miles an hour.
I stood watching as they paraded down to the river, singing defiance to the misery around them.
“I’m gonna need another taste if you want us to keep on top of this bridge,” he told me. “Because this shit is skinning my nerves.”
I slid the knife out of my boot and cut my poncho up the middle. Underneath, I was just as wet as if I hadn’t worn it. The pills in my pocket had gone sticky, but we managed to get them down.
Ox said, “Man, what’s on Southside that’s so great?” He was leaning so far forward his breath fogged the windshield with every exhale.
“My house,” I told him.
“Yeah, mine too,” he said. “I keep my mansion on the Southside.”
At last we were off the bridge and cruising into the darkness of the other side. I hadn’t been to these suburbs in about five years, and I got us lost. Everything was familiar yet slightly off, like in a dream. It was as if someone had come along and rearranged the street signs—I’d navigate us onto a road I recognized, and it would take us in the wrong direction. I knew we had to get west, up to where the bluffs stood like wardens overlooking the river, but every route we tried insisted on winding us farther back than we’d begun.
“What do these blue bloods have against straight roads?” Ox complained. “If I’m going to die out here in the woods, I’d like to at least have a cucumber mojito in me.”
I told him I’d never heard of a cucumber mojito.
Ox said, “Man, it’s the best drink you never had.”
We ate more pills. Fluid hummed in my ears and my tongue felt like a pad of wool.
“There’s some serious bank accounts up here,” Ox said. “You know these people?”
“I had a wife here,” I told him.
“You want to wake her up to say it’s raining? Sure. Husband of the year.”
I pictured my wife—her broad cheeks, her dimpled hands. I thought of our house on the bluffs with the river below, a white water moat between us and the city. In the evenings we would sip coffee on the patio, everything tranquil. We drank expensive wine and made love on our knees in the backyard and we never felt guilty.
Eventually, somehow, Loblolly Drive sprang up to meet us.
“Here!” I shouted.
Ox yanked the emergency brake and we hydroplaned into a signpost. It cracked in half and splashed into a ditch.
“Well?” Ox said. “Left or right?”
The road snaked us through the woods and up onto the bluffs, where the trees grew taller and the houses loomed farther apart.
“There it is,” I said. “The white one.”
There were two cars in the driveway, one I didn’t recognize. No lights were on, not even a porch light. It must have been three in the morning. Ox and I peeled off our trash bags and flung them across the porch furniture. I banged on the door. After a while I heard someone coming. I thought it might be a man. I thought I might have to use my knife. But it wasn’t a man who opened the door; it was my sister-in-law, Bea. Bea the nurse, the saint. She’d been against me even when my wife wasn’t.
“Quentin?” she said. “Jesus, what the hell?”
Behind her in the living room, a lamp flicked on and I saw the pale, blinking face of my mother-in-law. She was sitting in bed, propped up on a stack of pillows.
But when the woman in bed said my name, I knew it wasn’t my mother-in-law. It was my wife. I went to her. How she had aged! I’d been gone five years and yet she’d aged decades. She had once been plump and firm, but now the skin hung loose off her jaw and arm like pizza dough. She was a pile of gray skin wearing a white undershirt.
I thought it might be a man. I thought I might have to use my knife.
“Rose,” I said. “You’re bald?” Then I saw more fully: the bed in the living room, the side table cluttered with orange scrip bottles. Her wasted body. And I understood why her nurse sister was staying with her.
“What happened?” I said, though I already knew. Breast cancer ran in her family.
“Shoes off,” Bea snapped. She looked over at Ox and said, “You too.”
Ox asked if he could use the bathroom, and he wandered out of sight.
Bea let out a groan that told me what she thought of us both. She and Rose were staring at me, quarrying deep into my ruined soul, and I was afraid.
Then Rose spoke. “Quentin, it’s been years. What are you doing here?” She said it so sweetly I wanted to cry.
“I thought, the rain . . .” The truth was I’d come to gloat. She’d always begged me to stop talking of omens. And when I came home one morning to find my shirts on the lawn and my locks all changed, I’d stormed away shouting that a prophet was never welcome in his own land. Now this flood had announced itself to me in a dream—it was finally happening, and I’d wanted her to acknowledge it. But I surprised myself by saying, “I was hoping you’d want me back.”
Rose began to tremble. I was hurting her again. A dark spot appeared on her shirt where it clung to the outside of her breast. The spot grew.
“Rose,” Bea said. “Honey, your wound.”
Bea knelt at the coffee table, her nurse’s station. She brought over a tray with rolls of gauze, folded washcloths, a bottle of sterile water, some kind of ointment, and long forceps—something between tweezers and barbecue tongs.
Bea eased Rose’s shirt over her head, then got to work. When Bea peeled away the dressing, a runnel of fluid wept out of a hole in the side of my wife’s breast. The hole had a tag of gauze hanging out of it. With one hand pressing a washcloth beneath the hole, Bea pinched the gauze with her forceps and slowly pulled. The strip of gauze emerged, dripping red and yellow. Rose sucked air and tried not to move. Bea kept pulling and there seemed to be no end to the gauze. It was like miles of colored ribbon being tugged out of a clown’s mouth.
Rose’s breath came in jagged, stifled gulps.
“Morphine,” Bea said over her shoulder. “By the lamp.”
I rummaged through my wife’s pill bottles and found the one with morphine written on the label. One to two tablets, it said. I went into the kitchen, my old kitchen, and drew a glass of water. When I set the pills on Rose’s tongue, the bedsheet was balled up in her fist. I placed the bottle back on the side table, and Bea nodded a tiny approval.
The gauze kept coming. The hole was less than an inch across. I dragged a chair in from the dining room and watched, transfixed.
“It’s like a cave,” Bea said as she began cleaning the mouth of the wound. “Just like a cave inside her breast. The lumpectomy didn’t heal right, and she got a tunneling necrosis.” She poured sterile water onto a fresh roll of gauze and wrapped the end of it around a long wooden Q-tip. I watched the head of the stick disappear inside Rose, the gauze feeding out from the roll in Bea’s hand. Bea twisted the stick as she pushed it. She explained that the cave should have healed weeks ago, before the chemotherapy began. Twice a day they did this. And tonight—because I’d upset Rose, upset her wound—a third time.
My wife’s pain didn’t leave her. I knew how those morphine tablets worked. The agony was still there—you knew about it, but it was a ways off, waiting for you to come back to it. I’d told her once, back when her mother was dying, that pain was a choice.
Rose was watching me. Her face looked like a rubber mask, all hairless and melted. I hoped she might go on staring until I died of shame.
When the entire roll had disappeared, Bea started on another. I imagined an endless winding reef of cysts.
“I’m not giving you any money,” Rose said.
“That’s not it,” I told her. “Love, that’s not why I came.”
There was nothing I could say. Somewhere in her house, a huge stranger was nodding off, or going through her jewelry box, or poking around her medicine cabinet. I’d always found a way to deepen her suffering.
Bea was taping a new dressing over the hole. Rose laughed a little.
“What?” I said.
“The life you’ve lived,” Rose said, “the things you’ve done, and look at you. You’ve never looked younger.”
This wasn’t true. My teeth were soft as balsa wood and the skin had pulled itself tight over my face, like I wore my bones on the outside. I told her she was still beautiful. This wasn’t true either, yet I meant it.
Rose looked at me. I’d never seen her so exhausted. “Oh, Quentin,” she whispered. “There’s nothing for you here.”
I started to say something. Ox walked in from the kitchen, eating a sandwich. “Well,” he said, “the sky quit pissing.” He moseyed through the living room, chewing loudly, running a hand over everything he passed. “Cool piano,” he said.
Bea stood. “It would be a good idea if you left,” she told us.
I looked around at what used to be mine—my carpet, my mantel, my love seat. Rose hadn’t changed any of it. She’d only had the bed moved downstairs.
“Rose,” I said, “these last five years, they’ve just positively chewed my ass apart.”
Rose looked away. Bea opened the front door.
Outside, it was barely drizzling. Ox started the car and backed us into the road. The sky was lightening, and we found our way down from the bluffs without much trouble.
“That was a nice house,” Ox said. Then he asked if I wanted another taste.
“I’m all out,” I said.
“No we’re not.” He lifted his shirt and produced something from inside his waistline. It was the orange scrip bottle with Rose’s morphine pills. “Never should have doubted you,” he said as he shook out two tablets and handed me one.
“Where to now?” he asked.
I put the pill in my mouth and shut my eyes. I saw a kaleidoscope of men drowning, dogs fighting, vultures spewing smoke. My ankle throbbed where the knife was digging in.