Stuff had a way of accumulating, until each item became a part of a pile, and each pile became a part of a mound, burying and compressing the items into the carpet until her things lost their individualness and became a shape of debris pushing against the walls of the house. Miranda stood in the living room of her mother’s house and wished she knew where to start.
Her sister Theresa had called last week to “schedule a visit” as though Miranda were a potential client ready to sell her home.
Miranda picked up a lamp, its sides darkened with oil from a leaking toaster, the shade plucked off and deposited somewhere else in the house, the chord frayed, the wires exposed as though mice had been feasting on it. How on earth could she explain this, the lamp, the moldy Tupperware, the mountain of clothes that erupted from her bedroom, her mother’s bedroom, even the bathtub, and the general state of their childhood home?
She’d throw the lamp away. You’ve made the decision, so just march over to the trashcan and throw it in. Or wait until Theresa got there and Miranda could make a show of throwing it away. But she wouldn’t because she couldn’t. Her mind was already calculating all of the ways she would feel unprepared if she let go of this lamp. What if the other lamps shorted out or fell over and broke, then she’d be lamp-less and would have to make a trip to the store to buy a new one and she hated picking out new things, when this one here in her hand would surely work, if she could just fix this little bit of exposed wire, so it wouldn’t catch the house on fire. Fire. Goodness. She wondered where the fire extinguisher was. Well, she’d find that later.
She glanced up at the clock that sat above the TV, waited for the second hand to move, and when it didn’t, she pulled the sleeve of her blouse and checked the time on her watch. Less than an hour and her sister would arrive, frown firmly painted across her face as though it was the makeup that made her face look frigid and disapproving. The watch had come from her sister, a Christmas present while their mother was still alive and Miranda was living by herself in an apartment in the neighboring county. The watch straps were bright, made of leather that looked like plastic; the watch face was fashioned out of a dull silver and inside the hands were shaped like running shoes, their steps counting off the minutes and hours as though Miranda was always running to and away from something. “I got the brightest thing I could find. And I made sure the strap wouldn’t come undone. I thought ‘Miranda will never lose this one,’ ” her sister said, making her mother laugh, her throat already sounding congested, the early stages of emphysema, the precursor to her cancer.
Cody scratched at the door and whined. Miranda was leery to let him out, afraid he’d manage to break his chain or slip out of the collar. It was those damn raccoons. A couple of weeks ago Miranda saw that thing on the news about a rabid raccoon, and now she kept the dog inside as much as possible. Her mother’s old home bordered a copse of undeveloped woods and raccoons had always been a problem. She still secured the outside trashcans with bungee cords, afraid she’d wake up the next morning to see all of her trash drifting across the street into the neighbors’ yards. Cody, though, knew something was out there. How many mornings had Miranda been woken by the scratching and the whining, a cold nose poking at her swollen feet sticking out of the end of the comforter? She swore the dog was all nose. They’d be out for a walk, nothing in sight but the neighbors’ trashcans, mailboxes, and cars parked carefully in the center of driveways, and Cody would yank her this way and that chasing down the ghost of a smell until he had carried her halfway through the small neighborhood. The walks, lately, had become a hassle. A downright burden at times, but she loved Cody and knew they could both use the time away from the house.
She scratched the thinning fur between Cody’s ears and stared out the window. The backyard looked derelict with its high, lush grass, the dew already burnt off by eight a.m. The metal T’s of the clothesline fell in toward each other, the line no longer taut, it draped across the ground like a forgotten jump rope. Their hand prints were fossilized in the cement, Theresa and Amy’s on one side of the base, Miranda’s on the other. There hadn’t been enough room for all three, so Miranda had compromised, like always, her mother trying to placate her with the word special. How special could it be if you were always alone, always set aside to do things by yourself? Her sisters acted as though they were twins, though they were born three years a part.
In the corner of the yard was the gazebo, its paint long peeled off, so that the wood looked like an overcooked and dried-out steak. She would have rather met with Theresa out there, where they could smell the earth, where she was sure the childhood memories would come to them as the clouds floated across the sky. Anything, really, to avoid Theresa seeing the house.
She turned from the back door, stepped on a Pez dispenser, this one of Barney, a present intended for one of her nieces. She heard the plastic snap as she lifted her foot. Her hip knocked into a pile of Tupperware, which luckily remained upright. She stepped over what was left of Barney and shuffled around the other items, a skillet filled with congealed grease she had meant to put in a container and save, the surface milky like the image of a cataract, sat at an angle on a tangle of wicker baskets. She turned to the side and shuffled past the mounds, her bare feet collecting the debris, particles of plastic wrap, twigs, a blade of grass, a kibble of dog food, until she reached the kitchen table.
The table was covered with stacks of envelopes, each one a bill she had been unable to pay over the last several months. She scooped a handful of dry, neon-colored cereal from a bowl and dropped the pieces into her mouth. It was too sweet and it turned her stomach, but it was all she had to eat. Cody’s tail thumped against the leg of her chair, his breathing a heavy, wet sound in her ear. She grabbed another handful and threw it on the floor at his feet, hoping he’d eat it this time.
“A poor excuse for dog food,” she said, and Cody lay his nose on her lap, ignoring the cereal.
She knew what her sister would say about the envelopes, but Miranda was afraid to hide them. What if she never found them again?
Those on top were often stamped in red ink, the words “Final Notice” dominantly displayed on everything but the veterinarian bill. She picked up the butter knife she’d been using to open the envelopes and rummaged through a stack at random. The sound of shredding paper was the only satisfying part of the process. A folded piece of paper slid out of the envelope, its bold letters loomed in the overhead light. She felt as though she were onstage in an empty theater. The rest of the house was quiet except for the beat of Cody’s tail.
“Cody,” she said. “I think I’ve let you get downright fat.”
The dog perked his ears at the sound of his name.
“And all because of a bunch of raccoons. Mommy promises that as soon as this rabies thing is over, we’ll go for a long run. How’s that sound?”
The dog stretched his back legs, forcing his mouth open in a smile. He’d been a present from her mother. It was one of the last times the woman drove. She didn’t tell anyone, just woke up one day, got in the car and drove, showing up on Miranda’s door with a puppy on a leash. Even after the three-hour drive, her mother had looked strong, defiant, even, and wouldn’t let Miranda refuse the dog. “I have to leave you someone or else I’m afraid you’d be too lonely. I’d love for you girls to get along, but I can see that’s not gonna happen. So take the dog. I know you’ll learn to love him.”
Not long after, the disease stripped away her mother’s weight, hair, and finally her memory, and Miranda had volunteered to move in. Theresa and Amy acted as though this was the natural decision. They had families, she only had herself. Never mind her job. Her therapists, she saw two, though neither knew about the other, disagreed on what she should do with these memories.
Her disability check had arrived yesterday and she had been sitting for hours trying to decide which bills to pay and which to skip this month. Her sisters had wanted to have an auction, sell the house and move on with the rest of their lives. If she had their lives, she would have wanted the same thing, but for the last two years her mother was all she had. Not only was she not ready to move on, she didn’t know how.
When they heard a car pull into the driveway, Cody lurched for the door, running through a pile of plastic shopping bags. A single bag caught on his ear and he dragged it farther down the hall. She pushed off the table and stood. When she was alone, the mess felt necessary, if only a bit cluttered, but now she saw the proof her sister would need to make her move out.
Miranda peered through the peephole. Her sister was dressed in her business clothes, a tailored black suit, with a bright fuchsia vest, fancy men’s cuff links that caught the sun as she took the sunglasses from her face and positioned them at the top of her head.
“She’s something else,” she said, and looked down at Cody for agreement.
Theresa’s shoes clack-clacked on the pockmarked driveway. Her head bounced here and there as she looked over the house.
Theresa stopped at the foot of the porch, pulled up her sleeve and checked her watch. Her lips pulled back, revealing a line of centered teeth.
Amazing, just amazing, Miranda thought. Funny, how much people resembled animals when they thought no one else was looking.
The doorbell rang twice in quick succession. Cody barked and growled. Miranda tried to push him out of the way with her leg. “Move now, it’s just Theresa. She’s family,” Miranda said.
Cody darted his head back and forth behind her leg like a child playing peek-a-boo. Miranda opened the door, the sunlight glaring. “Hey, sis. Looks like we’ve got some work to do,” Theresa said. The smell of perfume, like fermented fruit, radiated from her clothes.
Miranda leaned in for a hug and Theresa clutched her briskly, briefly. Then there was the feeling of Cody’s body, coiled and heavy, behind her leg and then it was gone, his body extended, a lunging blur. Theresa recoiled, and Cody darted passed her through the open door. He tore around the corner of the house, wisps of grass and dry earth jettisoning into the air and landing where Cody was only seconds before. His barks trailed behind him, echoing in the silent afternoon air and finally receding from the house.
“Oh, shit,” Miranda said.
“That’s going to be a problem, isn’t it?” Theresa said, again checking her watch.
She slipped past Miranda, leaving her holding the door, noticing now Theresa’s vehicle parked in the drive, this one an even bigger SUV than the one before it.
Miranda lumbered through the dining room and the kitchen, barely registering Theresa sitting at the table, opening an envelope. The back porch was a maze of furniture Miranda had picked up here and there at garage sales. A head and footboard for a queen-size mattress missing its metal frame, a bean bag chair she was planning on refurbishing and giving to Theresa to take home for Natalie and Ben, an upright dresser that was missing its top shelf. All of these items were a little TLC away from being serviceable.
Miranda caught the hem of her shirt on a knob of a cabinet door, it held her up, her body pushed forward, determined to get to the backyard, until she realized she was caught on a piece of furniture. She swiped a hand at the fabric and it ripped, sending her plunging forward, where her shin knocked into an old mailbox, which fell into a vacuum, which fell to the floor in a clatter of plastic. She made it to the screen door, and it of course was stuck, the wood warped from too many seasons of rain and sun. She could see Cody sprinting around, stopping for a quick scent around the gazebo, and then he was off again, running farther and farther toward the woods.
“Cody,” she yelled. “Cody!”
She heard Theresa behind her. “Miranda. Sis. Wait.”
She lowered her shoulder and nudged the door. The door sprang open, plunging her into the yard. The shock of brightness became a kaleidoscope of colors at the back of her eyelids and she thought she might faint. She took a few measured steps toward the gazebo, before she felt Theresa’s hand at her elbow.
“He’ll come back,” she said. “Looks like he needs the exercise, anyway.”
Miranda wanted to punch her, knock the glasses right off her head. Theresa didn’t give a damn about anybody but herself. It became more apparent every day. Oh, Mamma, I wish you were here.
“The raccoons,” Miranda said, her breath ragged.
“Come on back in the house, so we can talk. We’ll get your dog back in a bit,” Theresa said, leading Miranda into the house.
“Cody,” Miranda tried to yell while gasping for air. Her fingers were starting to tingle and there was a buzzing inside her ears as if her blood had become tiny, beating wings.
“I know how important he is to you, but first the house,” Theresa said, letting go of Miranda and prissily walking around the cabinet, careful not to get her clothing caught on its doors.
Miranda braced herself for the questions, the browbeating, but her sister stood behind the kitchen table, rubbing her hands along the ridge of the chairback.
“Amy told me it was bad, but I didn’t believe her,” Theresa said. She picked an unopened envelope off the table. She scanned the front and then tore it open by the edge. Top to bottom and she took out the notice, unfolded it and began to read.
“Can’t we at least visit for a while first? Maybe take a glass of lemonade out to the gazebo,” Miranda said, opening the refrigerator and bringing out the pitcher of lemonade.
Her sister’s eyes flitted up from the mail and then back down. She spoke from behind the paper. “Haven’t been paying the bills, either, I see.”
“Didcha hear me? Lemonade. Just like Mom used to make.”
Miranda brought down two glasses and rubbed the insides with the torn hem of her blouse. Satisfied, she filled both glasses and set one down in front of Theresa.
“Anything else I should know about?” Theresa clucked her tongue at the glass, but didn’t pick it up. She dropped the notice on the top of the other piles of mail.
“I just got a little behind. I’ll clean it, I promise. Pay the bills, too, if it’d make you happy,” Miranda said.
“Heard all about it for the past year. Promise this and promise that.”
“I didn’t know what to do with Mamma’s stuff,” Miranda said. “Please, Tiny, if we go on outside I can keep an eye out for Cody.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not a child anymore, and in case you haven’t noticed, this place is a disaster,” Theresa said, giving her watch another glance and then pulling on her earlobes.
“But we’ve always called you that,” Miranda said.
“Miranda, honey, dammit. We’ve got to talk,” Theresa said, turning the sheet paper she was reading around so Miranda could read the notice for herself.
“I know what my bills are, thank you very much.” Miranda looked away from the notice and into the other room, trying to spy through the window. She might as well have been trying to look the wrong way through a pair of binoculars, because she couldn’t see anything from this distance, not to mention her view was partially blocked by the handlebars of a bicycle she’d brought inside because she was afraid it would rust. She couldn’t remember when she rode it last or when she brought it inside, either.
“Electric, gas, phone,” Theresa said, flipping through a stack of envelopes.
“If Cody was a child, you wouldn’t be acting like this,” Miranda said.
“He’s not, though. He’s just a dog, an animal that’s meant to roam free. Can we get back to the house, please?” Theresa steepled her hands and perched them underneath her jaw, her eyes filled with pity.
Miranda had been looking forward to having an adult conversation with someone other than her therapist. Right now they could have been looking back at the memories of their childhoods, but all Theresa wanted to do was to tell her how stupid she was to be worrying about Cody.
“Are you still seeing that therapist?” Theresa asked.
“Every other week whether I need it or not,” Miranda said, expecting Theresa to laugh. It was an old joke of their mom’s, who said it every time she made them take a bath.
“Have you told her about the house?” Theresa said.
“Why not? It seems like something you want to work on,” said Theresa.
“I don’t tell her everything,” Miranda said.
“I thought that was what therapy was for.”
“There are some things that I’d like to keep to myself.”
“How can she help you with your problems, problems none of the rest of your family understands, mind you, if you’re keeping it to yourself?” Theresa asked, a flare of frustration underneath her professional voice.
“It’s not safe out there,” Miranda said. Theresa lifted her palms toward Miranda and shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll show you.”
Miranda stalked through the kitchen, through the adjoining bathroom and into her mother’s old room. She closed the door behind her and flipped on the light. This was the worst room in the house. Shortly after her mother died, she had tried going through her things to figure what needed to stay and what could be donated or sold off, but after several hours all she had managed to do was pull everything out of the closest and dresser drawers and pile it on the bed. She cried over her mother’s bras, the way they had become soft, dingy, and misshapen, the underwire bent and no longer providing support; cried, too, over the robe that hung on the back of the door, the one Miranda had wanted her to be buried in, but her sisters had refused, instead dressing her in something new from Macy’s, a lavish expense their mother would have never done for herself; cried until she began to laugh over the sweater vests her mother wore to school every day, some of the pins, World’s Greatest Teacher, You’re a grade above!, and A for Effort, still hanging from them. When she had finished laughing she left the room, only to return in the coming months to deposit more of her mother’s things, until the rest of the house was clear except for a picture here or there. That’s when she began filling the empty spaces with her own things.
Now, she took the newspaper clipping from the frame of the mirror, where she left it a month ago so she wouldn’t forget. She read it over again:
Rabid Raccoon Found
The State Public Health lab confirmed a case of rabies on Monday when a raccoon was picked up by Animal Services on Beaver Ridge Rd, and was sent for additional testing. Residents in the vicinity should be on the lookout for sick or abnormal looking wildlife.
Pets should be secured in residents’ homes, contained in backyards, or secured with leashes when walking to avoid contact with possible rabid wildlife.
“Oh,” Theresa said, sucking in a breath.
“Look at this,” Miranda said, holding the article toward her sister’s face.
Theresa took the paper from her hand and read it quickly. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“So now you understand,” Miranda said.
“No. No, I don’t understand. Who worries about rabies anymore?” Theresa said, picking up one of their mother’s blouses and folding it. She glanced at the bed as though she intended to place the shirt there, but brought it to her chest.
“People with pets, people like me.”
“But really, you know the chances of something like that happening?”
“It does happen, though. People win the lottery, crash in a plane, have sextuplets. Who cares about odds when it could happen to you or me,” Miranda said.
“But why you?” Theresa asked.
“Because you let Cody out, because I’m living in Mom’s house, because I don’t have a job, because I’m alone, because I see a therapist, because you want to take away the only home I have left, all because Mom died,” Miranda said.
“Don’t you blame this on her. This place, the trash, the clutter, that’s Mother’s fault, too?” Theresa said.
“Oh, shit, Theresa. Are you crying?” Miranda asked. She reached for Theresa’s wrist, but she couldn’t get past the armor of bangles, the metal cool and lifeless.
“I don’t think I can be in here another second,” Theresa said.
“I didn’t mean for you to see this. I thought we could have a nice visit,” Miranda said.
“A visit?” Theresa bent down to untangle the tip of her shoe from a pair of their mother’s panties. “Well, I’ve seen it now. God, I can’t believe Amy was right.”
“Remember when Mom would call them bloomers?” Miranda asked.
“No, I don’t,” Theresa said and walked out of the room.
“All I wanted was a nice visit,” Miranda said to the room as though Cody were sitting at her feet.
By the time Miranda had made it to the kitchen door, Theresa had collected her things and was standing in what would have been the foyer, though there was no upstairs to the house and the room was as full of odds and ends as any of the other rooms. The thing that caught one’s eye in this room was the shelves of bells, their mother’s collection, fashioned to the walls.
“Don’t go just yet,” Miranda said. “Stay and help me find Cody.”
Theresa took down one of the bells and wiped the dust away. She shook it and the twinkle of sound rang through the room. She dropped it in her purse and turned and looked at Miranda.
“If I lived in a place like this, I’d make a run for it, too, if I had the chance.”
The words hung in the air, vacating the last notes of the chime.
“Why?” Miranda said without thought.
“Because Mother is gone and I’m tired of your excuses. Why do you think we asked you to take care of Mom? We could have easily put her in one of those homes, but we knew you guys needed each other. You’re so much alike. Imagine if I would have moved in?” Theresa said. She opened a leather-bound day planner and took out a flier. In the center was a picture of their childhood home when it had been in better shape.
“I can’t just move. Where would I go? How would I pay for it?” Miranda asked, as she backed away from the door, refusing to read the flier.
“Amy and I agree it’s time we moved on.” She took a check from her purse and wedged it and the flier between a row of bells, kicking up a layer of dust and knocking the bells into one another, the room filled with the chimes. A sound Miranda no longer wanted to hear; the cheerful chirps now a burden.
“Sis, it’s time. Make sure you get that to the bank,” Theresa said.
“Mom left me, too. It’s not like she left any instructions. I don’t know how to act. I barely sleep and now I’ve got Cody to worry about,” Miranda said.
She took Miranda by the shoulders, opened her mouth, shook her head.
“Sis, just get it together,” Theresa said. “And fast.”
* * *
When Theresa left, Miranda walked out to the gazebo, hoping for a glimpse of Cody. All she could do now was wait and think about the check Theresa had left. She had been too afraid to look at the amount. That was Theresa, though, stopping the conversation by throwing money in her face. Hadn’t even given her a chance to explain. Miranda had wanted to tell her about the last year. It might have made a difference.
By then the nurse was coming on a daily basis and though she never said anything Miranda knew she was only in the way. It hurt her to sit by her mother’s side, trying to hold the dying woman’s hand — because she had been dying — and having the nurse give her one of those look. Couldn’t you leave the room for just a few minutes while I do my job? So Miranda had left and what could she do but walk around the stores and think of her mother and the things her mother loved to do — put together puzzles, add to her bell collection, crochet. That’s when the massive buying had started. She would come back, shortly after the nurse had left, excited to give her mother the presents, only to find the old woman dozing in and out of a troubled, medicated sleep. So what else could she do but start a pile, stack the things up in the corner of a room, waiting for her mother to get better? She had to get better, because there was so much Miranda wanted to share with her. But she never got better, but for a few rare moments of lucidity and what did her mother want to talk about? Her sisters, that’s what. Her mother wanted Miranda to make amends, and quick, so she — her mother — could see them together one last time. A storybook plot that Miranda didn’t want any part of and so she continued to buy and store.
* * *
Now Miranda waited, fanning herself, wishing the shade of the gazebo would do something about the heat. He’d come back, he had the time before. Dogs didn’t just run away from home the way people did. Cody knew he was needed and would return. Unless. Unless he ran into those raccoons. And God help her if he did. The fine for not having him vaccinated was one thing, rabies was another. Maybe she’d have to scrape together the money after all. Should make Theresa pay for it. In the general and the specific, it was her fault. She had no right to turn what could have been a perfectly good family visit into a business matter. All Miranda wanted was to spend some time together, was that really so hard? Maybe if they had met someplace else, like a park or coffee shop.
The sun dragged across the cloudless sky and Miranda willed herself to sit. At some point she fell asleep and awoke with a start, her hand flailing at her shoulder, the tingly sensation of a fly crawling around her neck. She stood and stretched her back, the muscles tight and radiating a dull pain from the awkward angle of her slumber. “Shit, shit, shit,” she said, a mantra without meaning.
“Cody,” she yelled, allowing the word to trundle out of her throat until her voice fell airy and syllableless, making her cough. She wanted to cry, but couldn’t, her tears somehow all used up.
“You’re all I’ve got left,” she said to the darkening sky, the stars just starting to show like streetlights coming on at random.
When no one answered, not human, nor animal, she limped back toward the house. She paused at the entrance to the back porch, gave the backyard a final glance and then moved into the shadows of her mother’s house to wait.