Verdad Magazine Volume 21
Fall 2016, Volume 21
Fiction by Kathleen Katims
The Flood in 1B
It was in the middle of Judge Judy that she felt a drop. She was the bottom apartment. It wasn’t raining outside. She could see that through the open balcony. She looked up. Thought maybe she’d dreamt it.
I’m telling you what I’m gonna do,” Judge Judy said. “I am going to fix your wagon, and you can pay back five hundred dollars to her for a broken washing machine. What business do you have letting a snake loose in an apartment house?” Jo liked this part especially, when Judge Judy laid it down and sorted things out in the conflict. It didn’t matter what people thought about it. They had to deal with it.
She lit up another Pall Mall. She’d been holding off for a while, but judgment time was a celebration.
Two drops this time. One on her forearm and one on the back of her neck.
Jo got up off her lounger to examine the ceiling more closely. These days getting up wasn’t so easy. She used to be five-foot-six, but now fully standing, she was maybe five-foot-two. She’d always seen older people hunched over. She’d never imagined as she got older, she’d be one of them. Her daughters and even her granddaughter towered over her.
Just then it started to rain through the fire alarms. First a trickle, then a steady downpour.
“What the hell… What the hell?”
She ran to the kitchen for a bowl. She poured out the jumbo bags of Lay’s potato chips and pretzel sticks—on sale two for a dollar at ShopRite—and ran back to the living room. It was leaking now over her dining room table, where her fixture hung. Back in the kitchen the walls were becoming dark with water stains.
She stumbled to the front door.
“Help me,” she shouted out into the foyer. Jo didn’t like the sound of her voice. Didn’t like to have to say those words.
Only Mona was in the hall. It was early for mail call. She was the one with the son who was not right in the head. She never talked about him. No one did. He gardened in the front of the house, put things in the ground in neat rows, but would not answer if you said hello.
“Jo, what is it?” Mona asked.
“Look at this!” Jo said. Mona peered in and now the carpet that her daughter had just installed a few months before was soggy. There were pockets of rain throughout the apartment. Judge Judy was still on the TV and Jo could see her wagging her head, getting ready to lay into somebody.
Jo had raised six children. Had trudged them through ice storms, had four kids under four, and made it through night after night on only a few hours of sleep. When she’d been afraid or tired or lonely, she only had to compare it to when she was a girl with an alcoholic mother raising her three younger siblings. Whatever was happening, things were better than that.
She was old now. Her body couldn’t do what she wanted it to do, and she was afraid.
Mona said, “Jo, we are calling the police.” Mona took Jo’s hand and led her to the phone in her apartment, and Jo let her. Frank was pacing back and forth, and she wondered if that’s how he was, when he wasn’t planting. She said hello, and still he didn’t talk to her.
“Hello, we have an emergency. Wait. Jo will tell you.” Mona shoved the phone at Jo, and she heard her voice speak. It was shaking.
“There’s water everywhere.” For a moment she imagined her apartment with her son’s ashes, with the love letters from her daughters in kindergarten, with the photographs of her dead husband, her lounger that the girls all chipped in to buy her floating off out through the apartment, out to the parking lot, and down to the ocean. All of her things exposed to the world, swollen and damaged.
She sat down even though Mona had not invited her to.
Frank left the apartment.
Mona said, “We are going upstairs.”
They knocked on the apartment above her, and there was no one home. They went to the apartment above that, and there was a woman standing there who they didn’t know. She was new in the building, and she carried a drill in one hand.
She still had a look of surprise frozen on her face.
“You can’t believe it. I just was putting up my ironing board and it exploded.” The water encircled their feet, poured out into the hallway. There was a massive hole in the wall exposing the circuitry, joists, and insulation of the building. Water was gushing out from a broken pipe.
Jo had heard she was coming, this new lady. It took her a long time to get to know the ladies here. She let them in slowly. She didn’t want to move too quickly. She wanted them to know she had boundaries. You couldn’t just come in if she didn’t want you to come in. The “old biddies” she would call them to her kids. She wasn’t that interested in them. They talked a lot of medical crap and stuff that she didn’t want to hear about.
She liked reading the New York Post and following Bill De Blasio and Trump running for president. She didn’t want to think about arthritis and tumors. Couldn’t stomach the words. Only Lorraine on the third floor liked to follow the presidential race and talk politics.
“I’m sorry,” the new woman said. “I didn’t mean to cause a problem. I was just hanging the ironing board.”
Jo wondered where she would live now.
Policemen came up the stairs. They looked so young and sturdy in their crisp blue uniforms amidst the women, like a different species altogether.
“What’s going on here?”
“She caused a flood,” Mona said, staring at the new woman.
The new woman began to cry. “I almost got killed,” she said.
They could hear Paul the super on the first floor and saw the geyser coming from the wall trickle to a stop. Mona turned toward the stairs and said, “Come on, Jo. Let’s call your daughter.”
They called Maggie together. Maggie had been throwing out things from her son’s closet and said she’d be right over. Before her daughter came, before anybody told her what to do and what the next step was, she went back into the apartment. Judge Judy had drowned on the television. Her apartment was drowning. She used to have a recurring dream when she was raising the kids. She was on a boat and there was a storm at sea and four of the kids got washed into the raging ocean. She wanted to save them all, but she couldn’t. She’d have to decide who to save and who to leave behind. In the morning, she told the kids her dream, still under its spell, and they waited slack-jawed. “Who did you save?” they wanted to know.
She stepped through the swamp of her apartment, clung to the walls, and found Henry, her oldest, his ashes in the box near the television. They’d arrived at the beginning of summer from Gunderson, Texas. He was found behind a bench in the park, and the guy he had been renting a room from found her number in an old pocket address book. Henry left Brooklyn when he was eighteen and had visited four times over the last fifty years. He visited four years ago, after a bad breakup, borrowed $2,000, and slipped away in a pickup truck. The last time he called her it was collect from a pay phone outside of Houston. He said he knew who killed JFK and that all the taxicab drivers were in on it. Cheryl and Maggie had suggested she bring the ashes to Lake Hopatcong, but she wasn’t ready.
The water was seeping up her support hose. She took her extra set of glasses and her walker with the basket. She went into the closet and took out the letters her girls wrote her when they were still in kindergarten, still rapt under her spell. They were from when they didn’t just love her, but were in love with her. When she left in the morning to take Henry and Cheryl to school, they’d pine for her to come back. These letters written in crayon, saying “I LOVE YOU” with magenta flowers, poured over on the coffee table with the cornflower blue letters painstakingly drawn each one. Lisa and Maggie.
Maggie has to make her way through the crowd that has gathered outside the building to get to her. Maggie lives closest to her, just minutes away. She has taught school for thirty years, lived in one house, with one husband, and had one son who, at twenty-two, won’t leave. After 9/11, she brought Jo to live in suburban New Jersey just across from the mall in senior housing. Even now, thirteen years later, when people ask Jo where she lives, she starts by saying that she is a New Yorker, but is living in Jersey. It took a while to get used to—Route 80 and strip malls and all the republicans—but she has.
Now Maggie is retiring and she and her husband have bought a mobile home. They are selling the house and leaving. Jo’s other daughters, Lisa and Cheryl, are making noise about her coming to live near them—one in California and one in Long Island. She can’t see going. It has taken her thirteen years to make a friend, thirteen years to go out for pizza with the girls after the Walmart run to Dial-a-Ride, thirteen years to feel comfortable here. At eighty-five, she doesn’t want to do the math till when she would feel comfortable in a new place.
Paul the super is here. “Oh, Jo, I’m sorry. This is all gonna have to come out.”
“Ma, you gotta go. We can’t stay here. You gotta come home with me.” Maggie’s red ringlets are plastered to her sweaty face. “We’ll get your stuff out.” Maggie was the kid who couldn’t leave her. She didn’t have a sleepover at a friend’s till she was fourteen—couldn’t bear to be without her near. But now she’s got to go. She’s got a son who’s got to grow up. She has the seasonal affective disorder. She needs sunlight.
Frank comes from the outside. He looks her right in the eye. A first. He sees all the people, because all the tenants have come out of their apartments, all gathered around her apartment door staring.
He is agitated. “What the fuck is going on here, fat ass? Who fucking did this?”
A tall policeman with a baby face under his cap says, “Whoa, whoa there, fella. Calm down.”
Mona says, “Come on, Frank. It’s okay.” She heads down the hallway, trying to get Frank to follow.
“This is a freak fucking fart fest, a shit house, a freaking fuck factory.” He can’t stop his mouth from finding juicy words to explode.
“Frank,” Mona says. The biddies are all watching.
Suddenly, Jo’s not afraid anymore. “It’s all right, Frank,” she says. His wild eyes flash at her, and she looks right back at him. When her kids were young, she would sit on the couch at the end of the day, and the girls would put their heads in her lap while she watched Johnny Carson. She’d smooth her big, soft hands over the flats of their backs. “Everyone is going to be all right. Why don’t you go water your garden?” Jo is white-haired and bent over, her spine an unlikely arch that barely keeps her erect. He is a burly man in his fifties, and though he can’t stop cursing, he takes huge strides to go outside to where no one can hear him.
That’s when Jo decides. She who doesn’t mingle with the old biddies. She who is a New Yorker. She is staying. Paul has an empty that he has been getting ready for a widower from Mahwah. She’ll take it, she decides. Mona can come in. Frig, Frank can come in. Just not that nut with the drill on the third floor. She rolls her walker over to the empty apartment.
“Paul, let me in.”
“This ain’t your apartment, Jo,” he says. “You know, I told you…”
Maggie is about to interrupt. Jo holds up her hand to silence her.
“It is now,” she says. “Paul, open the goddamned door.” And he does. She’s never spoken like that to anyone here in New Jersey. It’s the kind of thing she used to have to say to her boys when they gave her a hard time when they were teenagers. She’d lay it down and they would listen.
She rolls her walker into the living room. It is the identical apartment to hers only instead of facing the gazebo, it faces the parking lot.
“I’ll take it till you fix my place. You’ll have to carry me out.”
The next day is Independence Day, and no movers can come. She was going to go with Maggie. They would grill some sausages and look at the fireworks over at the lake. Instead, Maggie sends out an SOS. Lisa is on a plane from Washington DC to California—always moving, always looking for something. She has had three careers, three husbands, and lived in six states. How could she hope to depend on her in California? Maggie and Cheryl and six friends come. They take everything out and put it in its parallel place in the new apartment. Mona helps.
She sits on the front balcony now that overlooks the parking lot. She’d always wanted some land outside, but in Brooklyn, it didn’t happen. They just had the apartment, the front stoop, and sometimes the roof on hot summer nights.
At first she felt on stage, but after a while she realized no one was looking at her anyhow. She sits in her curlers, listening to the radio, smoking Pall Malls. Trump is telling everyone how rich he is, and it makes her smile. It’s going to be a fun campaign. She might have to call Lorraine down to sit with her a while. She’ll bring out the chips.
She’s making dinner for Mona. They don’t mention Frank, but Mona is bringing ice cream and Jo is making meatballs for dinner. She’ll send some back for Frank.
BIO: Kathleen Katims is getting her MFA at Antioch University in Creative Non-Fiction. She writes fiction, poetry, short stories and creative non-fiction. She is working on a book called Second Acts, interviewing, researching and writing about people who had interesting journeys out of being stuck and moved in the direction of their dreams. She founded Saved by a Story, a story telling salon with a purpose—to share stories, create community and raise money for organizations that help people tell their story. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California with her awesome husband and two cool cat kids and big brown dog.