When the sewer upchucked during the flood, out came a large rubber fly. We didn’t think it was all that weird. It belonged to Bobby. He probably lost it down the sewer years ago. He was already twelve and obviously not playing with toys anymore, but he’d seized the fly, lifelike and grotesque, dried if off on his pant leg and put it on his dresser.
When the flood abated so did the rains, but the day after the fly appeared, the sewer regurgitated again. We didn’t see it happen, but we heard an odd burping sound and went downstairs to investigate. This time it produced a toy horse, a white one with a yoke around its neck. I loved horses but I didn’t like this one. I remembered it from my own childhood. Its neck was bent, as if it were straining against a heavy load, and I felt sorry for it. Why couldn’t the sewer have served up a pinto with a wild, flowing mane? Meantime, the cover was still on the sewer. It was small, though heavy, and it had holes you had to put your fingers through to lift it.
“It’s Mom,” Bobby murmured, turning the horse over in his hands. “She’s sending this stuff back to us.”
I wound up to sock him, but his eyes were glowing and he was looking at me in all earnestness. In his dark jeans and plaid shirt he looked like a child of the nineteen fifties. My fist wilted.
“Mom is not down in the sewer, Bonehead. It’s the flood,” I said.
“The flood is over.”
She hadn’t even drowned, nor had she fallen down a manhole. She had dropped dead in the Safeway. She fell face first in the baking aisle, one hand clutching a bag of Chipits. Heart attack. She had a congenital heart defect, not that any of us knew it. We only found out later, when it no longer mattered. Dad and I bawled our eyes out at the funeral and made spectacles of ourselves. Not Bobby. He seemed to have been carved from obsidian. Now he carried around that old plastic horse figurine and rubber fly as if they were talismans. Dad didn’t notice any of this. Never the most attentive of fathers, he’d turned into a ghost since Mom died. That was almost a year ago.
Over the next week, the sewer spat up more farm figurines. First came the jersey cow, then the big pink sow, then the sheep with the thick coat, then the jaunty rooster, then the farmer with the shotgun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Bobby dried each one off and put them on his dresser. All, including the rubber fly, were placed in a half circle, heads facing toward a picture of Mom and Bobby taken three years ago at Wisconsin Dells in front of the hulking statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.
Dad loomed over a crossword puzzle whose pieces were scattered over the kitchen table, all three thousand of them. Some British scene—the Tower of London or London Bridge or some such thing. It was one of a series. He had done six others, and each time he finished one he varnished it and framed it and hung it on the wall. Our house was beginning to look like a thrift store or a crusty old men’s club. I hated those jigsaw puzzles. When Bobby was five and I was ten we’d found, hidden behind a sheet of plywood in the garage, a vintage cheesecake picture of a sultry blonde wearing a bustier, garters, fishnet stockings and a come-hither gaze. A long cigarette holder languished between two long fingers with tapered fingernails. I was so affronted I wrenched it out of Bobby’s little hands and chucked it over the chain link fence that separated the back lane from the field. It disappeared into the snow. I expected it to resurface in the spring, but when the snow melted, it was gone. At this moment I wished that picture was hanging on the wall instead of all those god-awful jigsaw puzzles of British tourist attractions.
“Dad, Bobby thinks Mom is in the sewer.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. He didn’t look up. “Dad? Are you listening to me?”
“Leave your brother alone.”
“Dad? You need to do something about the basement.”
The basement stank of damp and mould. The flood had drenched the carpet, the boxes that contained our Christmas decorations, other things. The air was heavy with spores. I could almost see them, microscopic paisleys filling the air and spinning around with the speed of an angry plague. I had shut the door to the basement and forbade Bobby to go down there. Dad fitted a corner piece of his puzzle decisively into place and acted like he hadn’t heard me.
“Mom says it’s okay where she is,” Bobby said. He sat cross-legged beside the sewer, his head inclined toward it. I was putting things that had got damaged by the flood – winter boots, a plush stool, my beanbag chair – into garbage bags. I wore rubber gloves and had a tea towel tied around my mouth and nose. I decided to humour him.
“Where is she?” Bobby shrugged.
“Is she in heaven?”
He shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
“You aren’t supposed to be down here. You could get pneumonia or the black lung or something.”
“You’re down here.”
“What else did she tell you?”
“She said we should look into getting our own sewer line. She said ours isn’t connected to the main city line but to Mr. Foster’s. She said if we ever had a break in our sewer line, we’d have to get Mr. Foster’s permission to dig up his yard.”
“Has anything else come out of the sewer?”
“But you still think Mom’s down there.”
Bobby sighed in exasperation. “It’s not that she’s actually down there, Josie, it’s that she needs like a conduit or pathway or something to communicate with us, and it just happens to be the sewer.” I stomped over to the closet and threw the door open. I hauled out the boxes of Christmas decorations. Most were ruined. The spun glass angel for the top of the tree that our parents had had since they’d gotten married was soggy and black. I picked up the angel by a wingtip and placed it in a green garbage bag. Same for anything made of wood or had fabric on it. I salvaged the Three Wise Men figurines (plastic) and the ceramic bells that said “Merry Christmas from The Bay, 1972.” They were covered in a fine layer of grey mould.
Ten days after the flood and Bobby was still taking up his post beside the sewer. The carpet stank to high heaven. He was whispering. I tried to listen.
“He’s OK … he does crossword puzzles all day … the basement smells pretty bad… she’s fine. Still telling me what to do all the time …”
“Well, what did Mom say today?” Bobby’s shoulders tensed.
“She said the carpet needs to be removed right away and thrown out. You need to call the insurance company and make a claim. She said claim everything. She said you should even claim those Reeboks that were floating around, the ones you used like one time when you thought you were going to be a runner. She said look in the filing cabinet under T for the insurance company.
“That’s Dad’s job!” I shrieked. “Not gonna happen,” said Bobby.
Stagg chili, Rice-A-Roni, Hamburger Helper, Cookie Crisp cereal. I drew the line at Spam, why I don’t know. I plunked the groceries down on the counter. Dad had finished his latest puzzle and it sat on the table like a giant postcard no one would ever want to receive. What was it? St. Paul’s Cathedral? What did I know about England? I was consumed with an overwhelming desire to upend the table and send the stupid thing crashing to the floor. I wanted to tear all of the pieces apart and soak them in water and stuff them into the blender and puree them into a pulp. Then I would spread the pulp onto a cookie sheet and let it dry and put it back on the table and say to Dad, See? Here is your goddamn jigsaw puzzle. As if I’d conjured him up, Dad came clumping downstairs. He was wearing a pink dress shirt and carried a small suitcase covered in Wacky card stickers: Girl-ar-dee, Cap’n Crud, Kentucky Fried Fingers. Not much different from the stuff I’d just purchased, really. It seemed Dad had finally gotten a haircut.
“Jigsaw puzzle competition,” he said, as he walked past me. I stared at him. I had no idea if the competition was in the next town, the next province, halfway around the world or if it even existed. I watched him as he walked through the door, shuffled down the sidewalk and disappeared into the garage. The automatic garage door hummed into life and after a minute our silver Oldsmobile nosed out onto the concrete pad, turned left and was gone. I went down to the filing cabinet, found the number of the insurance company and dialed.
With the carpet gone the floor was cold, hard concrete. Still Bobby sat there by the sewer, whispering and nodding.
“Bobby, you’re going to get piles,” I said.
“Josie, I have bigger matters to attend to than piles.” “What wisdom has Mom dished out today?”
“She said thank God the house is paid off, because if Dad doesn’t come back, at least you and me will still have a place to live, though you’ll have to pay bills and property taxes and stuff, so you’ll have to get a job. She said it’s a good thing you’re turning eighteen soon. Otherwise they might try and take us away.”
“Dad is coming back,” I said, in a tight little voice. My throat felt lined with sandpaper. “He’s at a jigsaw puzzle convention.”
Bobby smirked. “That’s not what Mom says.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! I shouted. That’s enough already. Tell me, Bobby, how is it that you’re the only one who can hear her? How come she’s not asking for me or Dad? Huh?” I didn’t believe for a minute our dead mother was communicating with him, but it stung me that she was not communicating with me. Bobby shot me a look that would have withered an oak tree.
“She’s trying to talk to you, Stupid. But you won’t listen.” Pow! Right in the heart. I resisted the urge to box his ears.
“And just what are these bigger matters you need to attend to?” Bobby smiled. “I’m going to see Mom.”
“You’re going to see Mom. How are you going to see her? You don’t even know where she is.”
“Yeah, but she knows where I am.”
“So, like, what? She’s going to send a cloud to pick you up? A magic carpet? Her own personal assistant demon from the afterlife?”
“Like I said, Josie. You’re just not listening.”
Five days and Dad was still not back. The microwave dinged. I had nuked some Stagg chili for supper.
“Bobby! Soup’s on.”
“Bobby! Get your butt down up before it gets cold.” Nothing.
I stood at the top of the stairs and hollered. No response. The basement was dark and silent as a cave. I checked Bobby’s room. It was empty. The top of his dresser was bare. The rubber fly and farm figurines were gone, along with the photo from Wisconsin Dells. Then I went into the basement. Bobby was not there, either. But the lid was off of the sewer. I knelt down and peered into the blackness. A rank, grey smell seeped into my nostrils. I heaved myself up, went into Dad’s workroom and got a flashlight. I flicked it on and shone it into the sewer. Something was moving far below.
“Bobby?” I whispered. The water or sludge or whatever it was roiled and swirled.
“Bobby?” I said more loudly. “Bobby!” I shouted. “Bobby, you can’t just leave me like this. You have to come back. I mean it. Bobby? Don’t leave me.”
My voice bounced off the walls of the sewer and shot back up back at me, the echo exploding from the black hole and spinning around my head like a cyclone.
Don’t leave me.
Don’t leave me.
Don’t leave me.
Once the echo had died down, I rearranged my legs into a comfortable cross-legged position and waited for something to happen.