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The Drowning Houseby Elizabeth Black
If there was a sign, I missed it. But I knew I was in Texas when I swerved to avoid a shape by the side of the road. It must have been around six in the morning, the first thin light just visible through the pines, when I crossed over the state line.
I stopped and backed up to confirm that the shape was a chest of drawers. Or rather the skeleton of one, since the drawers themselves were gone and the empty spaces where they should have been gaped open. I’d lived away long enough to find the sight incongruous. But it came back to me all at once, the things I’d seen abandoned at the side of the road in Texas. Not just on rural blacktops but along the busiest superhighways—gut-ripped mattresses, clothing, suitcases, and once, a velvet rocking chair.
It was what you might expect in a country at war—personal belongings strewn along the side of the road, as though their owners’ lives had exploded, sending them flying. Or on the frontier, when travelers came this way as a last resort. In the days when “Gone to Texas” meant you were desperate.
It was May 1990, and still cool enough at night to leave the car windows open. I heard a bobwhite whistle, and I whistled back, but the only response was a quick flurry of wings. Bobwhites have different calls—for assembly, for food sharing, calls of alarm and flight. Probably I had said the wrong thing.
I had been driving for several days. Early on, I’d left the route Michael had drawn for me on the map. It was a route as unlikely as the map itself, where the entire continent was an uninterrupted expanse of green. As I drove up the ramp onto my first stretch of freeway, the map blew into the backseat, and I let it lie there.
Before I left, Michael and I had argued. He couldn’t get away, he had a case coming up for trial. “I’ll put you on a plane if you want,” he said.
“You’ll put me?”
“Clare, it’s just a phrase.”
“You know I can’t fly.”
We’d had the same exchange before. What usually happened next was that Michael would shrug and go back to his desk, with its shifting piles of papers and stacks of books on torts and civil procedure, and I would wander the apartment, picking things up and replacing them like someone seeing it all for the first time.
Instead I said, “I’ll drive.” Saying it made it seem like something I could do.
“You’re going to drive to Texas from D.C.? By yourself?” Now I had his full attention. “You haven’t driven anywhere in months.”
I had tried. I’d gone out to the garage, keys in hand. I’d seen through the window Bailey’s blue parka lying on the backseat, one arm flung out in a gesture so vividly like her that for a moment I could almost believe she was alive. Then the truth washed over me. Bright spots swam up from the concrete floor and my legs began to shake. I went back into the house.
Michael had even suggested selling the station wagon, but I’d resisted.
“Well.” Michael is tall, and when he concentrates, he looks down and frowns. I had once found it attractive, the way he would focus his energy on a problem only to forget it completely a moment later, raising his head and gazing out again at his own serene world. That was before I’d ever supposed I could be the problem. “If it will make you happy.”
I didn’t tell him that happiness had always seemed to me to descend suddenly, when you least expected it, like a sun shower. That often it wasn’t until much later you could look back and say, then, on that ordinary morning, with a car full of six-year-olds squirming and kicking, as the station wagon flashed through the dappled light of the tree-lined streets, then I was truly happy.
“Michael, don’t,” I said.
“Don’t deal with me. I’m not a client.” In the end, he tried to give me the keys to his car, the BMW. The offer was real. Still, he was visibly relieved when I declined. He did give me the map and a judicious kiss on the cheek. Our bodies didn’t touch. We had not been good together in bed for some time.
After about an hour, I exited the freeway, pulled over, and buried my face in my sleeve. There were so many trucks and trailers, and even the compact cars whizzed by so fast that the station wagon seemed to shift in their wake. I took a few deep breaths. There were other routes. I would find a secondary road and keep heading south, the way travelers did when America was truly new and green.
I slept in snatches. I showered twice—at a campground, where a raccoon watched from the edge of the wooden deck, and at a women’s shelter, where the sad-faced desk clerk asked no questions. I ate while I drove, littering the back of the station wagon with fast-food wrappers. I passed any number of motels and restaurants. But I was afraid to make a real stop, afraid that if I did, I might reconsider. Once I was in Texas, I knew the Gulf would draw me. Its pull was stronger than anything I’d left behind.
If I had been asked, I would have said that I’d lost my daughter a year ago—two months and three days after her sixth birthday. I lost Bailey. That was the way I thought of it, and the thought was both hopeful and damning. Lost suggested that she might someday be found, as if she had wandered into the next aisle at the grocery store or been forgotten by the car pool, that she might reappear, absently twirling a damp strand of hair around one finger. Still, anyone listening carefully would understand that it was an admission of guilt. I lost her.
I also lost the person I was then, the person I was becoming. The new Clare I saw reflected in Michael’s eyes—listless and unresponsive, she spent too many hours sleeping, too many hours in the twilight of the darkroom working from old negatives.
Of course, Michael’s was not the only perspective. Jules, my agent, would have said more positive things. That I was a young photographer whose star had risen suddenly. That I had been invited to Galveston to choose material for an exhibition. And it was true. In my camera bag I had the letter confirming everything.
It had arrived late one afternoon. I was lying on the bed, still wearing the leggings and frayed T-shirt I’d slept in. Soon Michael would call from his office and ask if I were dressed. I would say yes and he would pretend to believe me. Then he would remind me of the upcoming partners’ dinner. You should get out more, he would say. But when I thought of the hotel dining room where the dinners took place, of the bleak expanse of white linen, the tightly wired flower arrangements, the recirculated air that smelled faintly of cleaning fluid—all of it so like one of the nicer funeral homes—I knew it was impossible.
Then an image came to me. I was still holding the phone, answering Michael’s questions—Yes I remember, yes of course I have something that isn’t black—when it presented itself, a face in partial shadow. I hung up and went back to bed, pulling the covers over me, but the face followed. Finally I got up again and went to look for a book.
In a cardboard box, still unpacked, I found the Cartier-Bresson volume and turned the pages until I came to a photo showing the interior of a once grand Galveston hotel. A sign tacked to the wall reminded boarders to pay their rent in advance. On the landing was an elderly woman, her body shapeless in a flowered housecoat. Darkness poured out of the doorway behind her and rose up from the baseboards, so that her face and body were split into light and shadow.
It was one of several images of Galveston looking sad and shabby, images that had caused controversy when the book was first published. Others were different. Cartier-Bresson had also captured in his photographs the sensuality, the drowsy, self-indulgent beauty of the Island.
That was when I began to think about Patrick. And the Carradays. The big house where I’d spent so many hours. The questions I’d left unanswered.
I grew up watching the tides, and I know it’s only after change is under way that we recognize it, when the incoming rush catches us unaware, and we hurry to gather our things and move up the beach. Still I ask myself, when? When was there no longer any going back? Suppose I had stayed with Michael, attended the dinner. Could I have become again the woman he loved and married, the Clare who was Bailey’s mother? Could I have made myself give up those other thoughts? And if I had, would everything else have been different?
at a gas station next to a produce stand, I parked and waited for sleep, hoping I wouldn’t dream. My dreams were always about falling. Things dropped around me—branches snapped, walls and roofs collapsed, objects of all kinds plunged from the sky. Sometimes I fell—down stairs, off bridges.
When I woke I went to the restroom, splashed my arms and face with water, and drank from the faucet. I dried myself with brown paper towels. I realized I was hungry, and I bought a pint basket of blackberries and ate a few. I’d stashed a half-eaten package of crackers under the front seat, and as I drove south, I finished what was left, swallowing hard and coughing up crumbs.
Past Houston the landscape began to flatten and simplify. There were no more pipe yards or feed stores, no more roadside chapels or ice houses advertising beer and pool. I saw white smoke drifting from the Texas City refineries. An egret lifting itself on leisurely wings. I could feel the presence of the bay and the deeper water beyond.
I thought of Bailey and told myself that the pain of losing her would diminish. That someday I would have the memory without the hurt. And while the sun glinted off passing cars and the breeze whipped around my ears, it seemed possible. I drove faster. Soon I came to the shallow rise that offers the first glimpse of Galveston.
Below was the old causeway, a series of sand-colored arches that skimmed the water next to the higher, modern road. The approaches at either end had been washed away, so that only the middle stood, rising abruptly from the water, like the spine of some ancient animal whose submerged skeleton had unexpectedly shifted.
Probably there were practical reasons why the old causeway had never been torn down. To me it said something about the Island, marked it as a place where the ideal of progress was complicated by stubborn survivals. A place where you could sometimes see the past running alongside the present.
The surface of the bay was broken only by the creamy trails of pleasure boats. Overhead, clouds hung huge and motionless as mountains. I saw nothing that would have been out of place in a travel brochure. Nothing to explain the feeling I had, like the one you get when the roller coaster leaves the loading platform and starts to move slowly, inexorably, up the first incline. For this was the Texas Gulf coast, the soft, sinking-down edge of the continent, and there wasn’t a real hill for miles.
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