Water from a plastic jug fills the toilet bowl, splashing as bubbles rise. It takes a whole jug to flush, sometimes two. So I only do it one time. One time a day.
Three weeks ago, the letter came in the mail. Notice of Termination of Utilities. I turned the faucet on the sink and no water came out. I poked my finger in and swirled it around, feeling the inside. It was damp and rough, and it left my finger covered in flecks of rust. I stacked the letter on top of all the other ones that said Final Notice. The letters date back to March, when my mom left.
They call for her all the time. They leave messages. I don’t pick up the phone because I can never answer them fast enough, and they start talking louder, telling me all the things that will be turned off, taken away or locked out if I don’t pay. I race to catch up, panting, my mind sweating, to tell them that I don’t have any money, and that it’s not my house, but they say as long as I pick up the phone, I have to pay. So I don’t pick up the phone.
Today, they turned the phone off.
I set the empty jug under the sink. Tomorrow I’ll go to the Tom Thumb on Johnson Street and refill it, for forty-nine cents. Before I go to sleep tonight, I’ll count out the change and arrange it on the table in the shape of a flower. The dimes will be the stem, and the pennies will surround the nickel, like petals.
It’s getting dark. There’s a round, fluorescent light in the kitchen that sort of hums when you turn it on, and I used to like to sit under it and listen to the sound. It was soft, like a stream or traffic. But they turned the electricity off too, so my choices are sit in the dark, or walk down the alley.
I choose the alley. I kick loose gravel and avoid the potholes. Rhubarb grows up against a neighbor’s garage. The broad, veined leaves nod in the breeze as I pass. I like rhubarb, and I would break off a stalk right now and crunch it like celery, but these neighbors are home. I can see their TV. The screen flickers with blue and yellow, a cartoon. I can’t hear anything, but I stand and watch for a while anyway, until one of them turns and sees me, and I move on.
As I turn onto 29th Avenue and walk toward Johnson Street, I’m hit by the smell of French fries cooking in grease at the diner two blocks down and my tongue sweats. I walk faster. Cacti line the diner’s window sills and underneath the cash register is a display case full of statues of Groucho Marx. There are only two people in the restaurant. They sit at the booth next to the juke box, silently eating plates of spaghetti and baskets of garlic bread. My stomach rumbles. I taste the buttery, salty garlic bread, and swallow hard.
I can see my reflection in the window. The orange glow of the neon sign that says “All U Can Eat French Fries” makes me look pale. On the other side of the window, the waitress sees me, and frowns.
I turn away. Across the street, the fountain outside the funeral home is lit up like a crystal. For a moment, I wonder whether I should cross the street and pick pennies out of the fountain. I turn the idea over as the light turns green. Someone might see. I dash across the street.
The water fans out like the petals of an iris. My arm disappears as I reach into the water. It’s cold. I fish out ten pennies and a quarter.
I cross the street again and walk in the other direction. The convenience store glows behind me as I slide the damp quarter into the coin slot of the pay phone. I twist the metal cord around my fingers as I listen to the ringing. My mother’s boyfriend answers the phone.
“She’s not here,” he says.
The line crackles. “There’s no water,” I say.
“What can I tell you? She’s working.” He used to live with us. He used to say that all the time, what can I tell you? On the marquee of the empty movie theater across the street, rusted bulb sockets spell “Hollywood”. A car with its headlights turned up high sprays light as it passes, and I imagine how the theater must have looked when it still worked, lights flashing and chasing the white hot glow from one bulb to the next.
The words are on my tongue, but he doesn’t give me time to push them out.
Before he cuts me off, I manage to say, “The phone.”
“For Christ’s sake, Ivy,” he says, “you’re eighteen. Figure it out.” He hangs up. The quarter drops.
A distant train whistle harmonizes with the drone of the crickets. I lay awake on my alcove bed, watching the shadows of the elm trees make patterns on the ceiling. The train rumbles and reminds me of the way the refrigerator would come to life and hum in the middle of the night back when the electricity was still on; reminds me of the way I used to pad around the kitchen in my bare feet, listening to my mother and her boyfriend in their bedroom.
They moved out when her boyfriend realized my mom didn’t own the house. They moved to a duplex on Longfellow; everyone tells me that it doesn’t makes sense for them to move there since it’s a worse neighborhood, but their house is two buses away and they know I get confused if I have to transfer. They know I won’t show up at their door.
This house belonged to my grandfather, and when he died he left it to his sister. She lives in another city and doesn’t know yet that my mother has moved out, but when she starts to miss the rent money that my mother owes her, and when she tries to call and hears that the phone is disconnected, she’ll be here. Soon, I’ll have to go.
A robin’s trill echoes in the street. I roll over and look at the time. The nights are already getting longer.
The next morning, I buy two jugs of water and a pack of PopTarts. The clerk tells me that the owners are selling the store.
“To an Indian family,” she says. She curls her hand into a fist and raises it to her mouth as she coughs. The skin around her eyes is wrinkled, and her blond hair is fading. “You know, from India. Dots, not feathers.” She presses her finger to the center of her forehead.
My answer appears splashed on the wall like messy graffiti: I had a friend in high school who was from India. Her name was Pimmi. We were both on the Honor Roll.
I open my mouth to say these things, but the only word that makes it is, “Pimmi.”
The clerk cocks her eyebrow and hits a key on the register that adds up the total. I shove my coins across the counter.
“Uh, honey,” she says as she counts them, “you’re a little short.”
There aren’t words. My fingers grope the inside of my pocket, searching for any change I might have forgotten.
“Hey, you know what? Forget about it.” She closes the register. “Next month, I’m out of this job anyway. Take it.”
The weight of the jugs makes my arms ache. At home, I take some of the water and use it to wash my arm pits and private parts. I haven’t washed my hair in weeks, so that now when I run my fingers through it, it makes my fingernails shiny with grease.
I eat the PopTarts cold. I try not to think about how they tasted when they were fresh out of the toaster, how the crust turned golden brown and the hot cherry filling burned my lips and peeled the skin on the roof of my mouth.
On the other side of the fence, my neighbor is picking raspberries. I watch the movement of her pale green smock through a lattice of raspberry leaves and chain link. The screen door clatters as I walk through it
I stand in the yard and watch her pick. A few raspberry canes poke through the fence and dangle little garnets of fruit over my grass.
She looks up, and her head jerks with surprise when she sees me.
“Ivy,” she says, her voice flat and tired.
“Can I live with you?” I ask.
“I don’t have any water,” I say, even though she knows I don’t have water. Last week, she saw me walking up the driveway with two jugs of water, and I explained to her that I needed them for the toilet.
She shakes her head. “I don’t have room,” she says, and turns back to her work.
“I thought you had three bedrooms,” I say, and I know she does. I glance up at the window above her back porch; there’s a twin bed in that room that’s made with clean sheets and wool blankets for her grandchildren when they sleep over. They don’t sleepover, not any more, and that’s how I know she has the space.
“I don’t,” she replies, and takes her basket of raspberries inside.
In the afternoon, I lie in the grass, underneath the clotheslines, and watch the shadows shift. My stomach has finished with this morning’s PopTarts and I’m wondering what I could find to eat besides the few raspberries that hover over my side of the fence. I think there might be fresh box of cereal in one of the cupboards. The thought of cereal reminds me of lying in the backseat of my mother’s car with the window down while we cruised down Central Avenue, my nostrils stung by the scent of the flax grinding in the mill at the General Mills plant.
Those were the afternoons when Mom would pick me up before school let out for the day, and we would sit by the river and watch the boats in the lock, or see movies that only cost a dollar apiece because they were done playing at the other theaters. That was before she started having boyfriends, before Saturday night became a choice between sitting alone in my bedroom with the radio on low so that I couldn’t hear what was happening downstairs, or sitting in the kitchen so that I could.
I can picture exactly where in the kitchen this box of cereal is; I’m certain it’s there. I won’t mind eating it dry.
I rise slowly and brush the stray blades of grass from my shirt. The kitchen is dark. I climb up on a chair and search the cupboards.
I don’t find the cereal. I realize I finished it off last week.
There must be something in the basement. A trapdoor leads to the basement, and the stairs are narrow. No one’s been down here in months, and the stench of mildew is so strong I have to hold my breath. I pry open the fruit cellar in hopes of finding a can labeled “Campbell’s” or a brick of ramen, or even a jar of pickled beets left over from my grandmother’s canner. The jars I find are clear and spidery. I find one that’s full. It contains green beans, but the lid is rusted through. The beans are brown, and they float in a murky liquid. I leave the jar on the shelf.
The mail comes every day at three, so I stay upstairs until the mailman has come and gone. From my window, I watch as he stuffs the mailbox, then leaves. I know that one day, someone besides the mailman will come to the door, someone who will knock several times and ring the doorbell. I’ll sit still and hold my breath until I don’t hear the knocking anymore, and then I’ll chance peering through the window. He’ll come back every day and knock for longer. He’ll knock on the neighbors’ doors, and keep knocking until going outside means I can’t get back in.
When the mailman has moved on to the next block, I go downstairs and fetch the mail from the porch. On top of the stack is a card from my mother. As I open it, a wrinkled ten dollar bill flutters to the floor along with coupons clipped from the newspaper. Sorry I missed your call, the note says. We will be out of town for a three day weekend, but if you call on Monday, call before seven. She signed it LUV, Mom, with an added PS: Be out by September 1st.
I tear up the card, and then gather the ten dollar bill and coupons from the floor. In the rest of the mail, there are three things that can be tossed, and two more envelopes that say “Final Notice”.
I add them to the pile.
All rights reserved to Elizabeth Sowden.