February 25, 2013 | by Jill Talbot
It’s unsettling how some stories come around again. When I was eight, my mother and I were in our garage in Lubbock, Texas, when she suddenly yelled, “GO!” and shoved me through the door. I ran to my parents’ bedroom. Suddenly, my mother was there, shaking, muttering “No. Oh, no.” She called someone, asked for an ambulance, said there had been an accident. She told me to stay inside, to not look out the windows. Not long after, I heard sirens. And the sirens, it seemed, kept coming. It’s been more than thirty years since that moment, and the pieces of it in my memory are scattered, like shards of glass.
I usually wake by ten o’clock on Sunday mornings, but this Sunday was different. From my bed, I could see through the hallway to the bathroom, where Indie, my nine-year-old daughter, was leaning over the black rug in the bathroom. She was sitting on her feet, her hands on her knees, as if she’d been running all night in her sleep and had woken in recovery mode. It was the end of October, and this was not the first time I had found her here, vomiting into the toilet. Her bobbed hair sticking up in the back, tousled, blonde. I asked if she needed me, hoped that she didn’t, because I was exhausted, my head tight, pounding, a hint I must have had too many glasses of chardonnay the night before.
We had only lived in the house since August, so Indie didn’t yet have a pediatrician. The week before, the pharmacist at the Price Chopper suggested Pedialyte, maybe Ensure if she didn’t start eating more. Fiber, he suggested. She’d be fine.
For weeks, I had packed a plastic grocery bag and an extra set of panties in Indie’s backpack for school, fourth grade that year, and each time, she brought home the soiled pair in the bag. She’d set it on the top step in the basement, and I’d take them down to the washing machine, toss them in, and rush back up the stairs.
Our house faced Main Street, also Route 11, a large parenthesis that curves through the middle of New York state. The traffic is steady. When I stood in our yard against the rush of speeding trucks, I could see the flags at the campus entrance, stretching or bowing in the wind. I had never lived in a house with a basement, and the orange glow of the furnace unsettled me.
When Indie gets home from school, we have reading time. Indie on the garnet loveseat, me on the matching couch. That fall, whenever I looked up from my book, her head would be on the pillow, her eyes closed, a blanket pulled up around her, even though it was still only September. She’d sleep as long as I let her. She was tired, weak, not hungry, this girl of mine who never took a nap, even when she was a baby. I couldn’t concentrate, felt the pull of sleep. Within a page or two, even I gave in. An hour, sometimes two. Waking up at five o’clock in the dark of a North Country fall hurt, but Indie’s homework had to get done, and I had to make dinner.
At the Price Chopper, I’d buy three Gatorade quarts at a time, sometimes not leaving the parking lot before opening one and gulping in relief. We were thirsty, exhausted.
If she wasn’t better tomorrow, I told Indie, I’d take her to a doctor.
The night after my mother pushed me into the house, I remember pulling back the heavy curtains in my bedroom, seeing in the glow of the streetlight the glitter of broken glass in the front yard. Waiting for the sirens, my mother had talked nonstop: the black car, the green car slamming into its side, the car hurtling above our yard. She could not stop herself from telling it, as if it were a secret she’d just learned. She wasn’t talking to me. Sitting on the navy comforter of my parents’ bed, I watched her lithe frame in the mirror above the dresser. I can still see the thick brown carpet with gold flecks, the nightstand where she stood. The secret kept.
My mother’s childhood home in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, had been a cacophony of chimes from the dozens of grandfather clocks lining the hallway and the clinks of glass behind a closed door during her own mother’s all-night benders. She spoke about her childhood only in flashes, hints my father and I would try to catch like fireflies. She had been a sleepwalker as a child. Once her father found her on Highway 67, which ran in front of their house. She was in her nightgown, standing in the middle of the road as if waiting to be hit.
That morning, Indie stood in the hallway between the bathroom and her bedroom as if testing her bearings, and I told her to climb into my bed where I could keep watch without having to move myself. She told me her head hurt, and I asked if it was knocking like mine, then rubbed her back until she fell asleep. We’d sleep till we felt better, or at least rested. It was already past one o’clock in the afternoon. After five mornings of getting up at 6:45 A.M. so that she could be ready for the bus, we’d sleep in on Saturdays, Sundays, but never that late, never past ten.
It was the move itself, I thought. The drive from Oklahoma to New York, the new place, the new house. Seven states in five days. For weeks, we slept side by side in the living room in sleeping bags on the hardwood floor, the rooms of our new house spacious, hollow. When our moving van arrived, ten days later, we carried every piece of furniture, every box of books, every lamp and rocking chair through the front door.
Mrs. Carter told us that Stacy Green had broken her arm in a car accident and that her father had died. We would be making cards for her that afternoon during Reading. I stared at Stacy’s empty seat, thought about raising my hand to say that she and her father had crashed into my front yard, but I didn’t. The house pictured on the cover of the Avalanche-Journal was mine. It would make me responsible somehow for what had happened, for the shattered windshield, for Stacy’s arm snapped between the door and the window crank, for the bloody figure I imagined crumpled in the grass.
Indie bolted out of bed and rushed toward the bathroom but didn’t make it. This was not the first time, so I knew the routine—first the paper towels, then the wet towels, then the cleanser, the washing machine, the rush up from the basement. I helped her clean up, got her a new pair of panties—her favorites, the ones with the monkeys on them—then guided her back to bed. My head a weight not centered with the rest of my body, so much that I kept both hands on the bed as I moved around to my side, crawled back on top of the covers.
By the end of September, Indie was going through four pairs of panties a day, the diarrhea explosive, sudden. When she began to look ashen, I asked a colleague to recommend a pediatrician. Indie sat on a chair in the waiting room, huddled in her heaviest coat. The doctor was not accepting new patients, the receptionist said, and gave me the name and number of a pediatrician in Potsdam, ten miles east. I tried to argue. “Please, she’s so pale,” I said.
“You could take her to the clinic downstairs, but it won’t open until four.” She looked at Indie. “She might need help before four, so you could take her to the emergency room,” she said. Then she closed the window.
The house we rented from the university had two stories, a basement, and a two-tiered back deck. The front door was red, the house cream. A large tree hovered out front, a stone walkway leading from the driveway to the front porch. Indie once said it was the kind of house you want to draw. The kitchen was spacious with a yellow countertop, an electric stove, a window over the sink that looked out to the backyard. There was no air-conditioning in the North Country, so through August and early September, we opened every window, let the eighty-degree wind through the screens.
Indie was up again, this time in the hallway, and when I asked what she was doing, she said she was going to get some Cheerios. I closed my eyes, relieved that she was up, moving about. Maybe I’d sleep for just a bit more and join her, watch the political talk shows I’d taped. I fell asleep again, then heard her, sniffling. She was back, standing in the doorway, sobbing. “I can’t do it,” she gasped. “I can’t get to the kitchen. I’m too dizzy.” Lie down, I told her, I’ll rub your head so you can sleep. My hands fumbled in her hair. Food poisoning. Surely.
It was hot in my room, and Indie and I tossed off the covers. The vent near my bed blew warm air, as if it never shut off during the night. I got up, checked the thermostat: 68 degrees. I lowered it to 60, stumbled back to bed, wondered what was wrong, why the furnace blew all night against the thermostat that told it to shut down at 65.
When August slipped into September, the leaves covered our yard, and we’d wade through them as if dragging our feet through a stubborn river. We settled in, learned the rhythms of the sun that set before we were ready. The dark was quick here. Moving from room to room, we lowered the blinds. September was in its final weeks, and the thermometer on the living room wall read 55. I pressed a button, felt the rumble of the furnace in the basement.
At the clinic, the physician’s assistant, a stout woman in jeans and a blue North Face jacket, diagnosed Indie with a stomach virus. One had been going around. For a moment, she leaned against the sink looking at both of us, first one and then the other, as if second-guessing her easy diagnosis. If she stops drinking or if her tongue looks like that again, she finally told me, take her to the emergency room.
By 1:30 , I made myself get up, felt my way along the wall in the hallway to the kitchen. We needed to eat something. Protein would help. I got out the turkey bacon, set a paper towel on a plate, picked four eggs from the carton. It was heavy in the house, a weight bearing down. I turned from the yellow countertop to the stove and fell, a puppet suddenly released from its strings. I tried to stop what was happening, put one elbow on the counter and one on the stove, but the tile pulled me toward it, and I went down.
I woke up on the kitchen floor, the stove moved from its place against the wall. I must have held on to it like an anchor, dragged it across the tile as I fell. I had to get up, get back to Indie. The eggs barely whisked in the black bowl, the turkey bacon in the microwave. I left it all, but not before turning off the coffee pot. Before I could get back to bed, a sudden sweat shifted to a chill, and I crawled beneath the covers and pulled them up over my shoulders, sure that sleep would stave off this sickness.
Within minutes, the room swelled in heat, and I broke out into a sweat. Indie’s hair was wet, sticking to her neck. We needed rest, to sleep as long as we could, but Indie slept too soundly. She’d fallen down into a depth, and I had to stay awake, on watch, in case she slipped further away.
I turned over, put my hand on Indie’s back to feel her ribs rise and fall. The sun through the slats in the window blinds seemed separate—as if we were hidden there, invisible, under a heaviness I could not attribute to wine, to a long week, to a late night. Indie seemed elsewhere, and I watched her in that moment against all the other moments of her sleeping: Her arms raised above her head in her crib—how I came to understand this meant complete surrender, exhaustion. Her head lolled over to her right shoulder in her car seat, her steady breaths above the hum of the highway. Her mouth agape in the morning’s moments before I woke her, her eyelids that never close completely so that I can read the rhythms of her dreams. This sleep was a closing down, a curling in, and I willed myself to break through the brace that held me to that bed, that room. Something was wrong, and I knew we had to leave. Get help. But first the house.
What happened next was methodical, trance-like. First, I went back to the kitchen. Poured the eggs into the sink and rinsed the bowl, wrapped up the turkey bacon, rinsed the coffee pot. Next, I went to Indie’s room and made her bed. In the bathroom, I washed my face, brushed my teeth, refolded the towel and draped it on the rod next to the sink. In the living room, I folded the beaded throw over the back of the loveseat. I stepped from room to room, stood at each door for a final inspection, remembered what my mother taught me: Leave the house neat. If something happens to you and you never come back, you want people to find the house nice.
My mother picked up every glass, every bowl, every pair of shoes as soon as they were set down. Growing up, I had to make my bed before leaving my room. Every time we’d leave the house, all the lights were turned off, the throw on the couch folded just right, my shoes placed on the floor of my closet. My mother’s insistence on control, I think, was a way to reverse her own mother’s chaos, a worry that anyone might come into their house and find (as she once did when she came home from school) empty bottles around the living room, vomit draped over the sink and the back of the couch, her mother sprawled naked and passed out in the back bedroom after a day of drinking. She kept things put away because so much had been left out, undone, by her own mother. That afternoon, before we left the house, going around to each room was a ritual that would not bear interruption. It was also the only time I looked at our house the way a stranger might, saw how they would see us through the rooms of our house, our home. I understood what my mother had meant: the house was us. But I was about to learn something she had known all too young, that no matter how nice you might keep your house, something beyond your control can destroy the depiction, seep like poison.
The hospital was right across the street from our house. I took Indie’s hand, and we worked to steady each other, ourselves. I told her we could make it. Indie collapsed before we made the sidewalk, heaved into the grass of our neighbor’s yard. Neither one of us could stand, our legs a betrayal. I sobbed and stumbled toward the street, waved my arms and called out for help, the cars on Route 11 speeding by.
A blue car slowed to a stop. Inside, a woman smoking a cigarette and a teenage boy listening to music through the wires coming from his ears. She looked back to their backseat layered in shopping bags, empty soda bottles, and clothes. I let Indie in first then crawled in, carefully, after her. The air in the car was as heavy and suffocating as our house. I guided the woman to the back entrance of the hospital while Indie sat so close our shoulders touched. I patted her leg, my hand trembling.
Later, as we were being wheeled out of the clinic, Indie on a stretcher and me in a wheelchair behind her with an oxygen tank in my lap, I thought of the furnace, blowing and churning through the days, the nights, the months. Carbon monoxide poisoning. It seemed simple enough. How had I missed it?
We were driven to Potsdam. “I’m right here,” I told Indie as they wheeled her from the clinic and into the ambulance. The EMT led me to a seat and buckled me in next to Indie. I patted her on the arm, told her we were fine. From the window of the ambulance, I could see our house. It was strange, seeing it from the outside. The tree out front sheltering the porch, the accent of the red door belying the danger within. I thought about all the signs I had missed, Indie’s diarrhea, our exhaustion, my inability to concentrate. My assumptions that it had been the cross-country move or adjusting to a region so different from the ones we had known allowed me to dismiss our struggles, or at least wait for them to dissipate, the way sand does when you step into a river. It rises up, expands, but then it falls back into itself, stills. I kept thinking that we were like that sand, and that within a few months, we too would come back to our selves. Our house, I assumed, was our haven, a sanctuary that kept us as we settled in to an unknown place.
My mother never considered her childhood home a haven or a sanctuary. After all, she spent most nights trying to escape it. But when she had a home of her own, she created one. I felt secure there. Even when cars crashed together just outside of it, I ran as far into the recesses of the house that I could, knowing I would be safe. The back room not a closed off, clinking dungeon, but a place of protection, where I never had to worry. As it turns out, the house Indie and I escaped had a dungeon of its own—a furnace with a split chimney that unknowingly spread its poison through the rooms, through us.
I thought of how I had done everything I could to make a safe and stable home for Indie and myself but there was a gaping hole in the chimney no one knew about, and it is there where the danger seeped out, crawled through every room, held us hostage.
I’ve never asked my mother if she remembers that car crash, and through the years, I’ve gone back in my memory, tried to separate what I know from what I imagined. If we are told stories about the past enough times, we begin to believe we were there, and my mother has put enough pieces of her childhood together for me that I can see the glow of the porch light from the front steps of that white house in East Texas. Looking back to that afternoon in Lubbock, I see my mother’s frame in the mirror, the blur of the kitchen as I ran by, the black skid marks I found in the street the next morning on my way to school. What I don’t see is what I wrote on my card to Stacy or the day she returned to school, if she did.
Memory forms, piece by piece. Some of them go missing, others interlock, firm. We fill in the missing pieces with what we imagine or just leave the gap, admit the blank. And sometimes, we imagine what might have been, would have been. I do this. I still wake in the middle of the night, imagine the outcome if we had stayed sleeping. It’s a jolt, like that moment when my mother pushed me into the house. Such near escape.
I kept an eye on our house—watched cars ignore the gravel of our driveway and speed into the yard. The tracks of those cars would remain imbedded in the grass for months, and when the snow began to fall in November, the dips in the surface of the snow would hint at a past urgency.
Jill Talbot is the author of a memoir, Loaded, as well as the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together and editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction . Her work has been published or is forthcoming from Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Rumpus, and Under the Sun.