Issue 1

Let the Rivers Clap Their Hands

 · Fiction

At eighteen, Theresa saw her grandmother trying to escape Alzheimer’s, only to get struck by, then sucked under, a bus. Since then Theresa clings to details, absurdities, people. A Newsweek article said that to avoid Alzheimer’s, the best strategy was to grow as many brain synapses as possible. Don’t do the same things over and over again. Don’t say the same things over and over again. Snappy syntax is a must. “Dendrites save lives. Clichés will kill you like a bus.” “Brush your teeth with your dominant hand to save your gums. Brush your teeth with your weak hand to save your granddaughter from a life of torment.” These would be her mottos, if she weren’t so terrified to repeat them.

She clings to Jack, and in the night, Jack has given up on sleep. The next two weeks are looming large. Weeks when he will be on the road, for one thing. And weeks when Theresa will be nannying a friend’s child. Nannying, he wants to say. Don’t you think it’s too soon after…? But he can’t bring himself to say it. Should he even have to say it, he wonders. He tries to focus on the morning run that won’t happen: crisp air in his lungs. Pine trees break through gray skies. The rubbery kneecap snap, back and front. And his mind — a happy blank. Instead he sees all those puddles he will have to jump through just to get to his car, and the washed-out gravel, and the trees blown over.

He breathes and pushes all those night thoughts away, and, with them, that morning three months ago: the way Theresa’s body panted like a dog, the way she screamed like something was being torn out of her, because it was, and the way the baby hung there, silent, in the doctor’s slippery hands.

But here are the hands, Theresa’s, clutching on to him.

“I dreamt I was a bomb,” she whispers. “I destroyed everything.”

Jack folds the covers down and leads her to the kitchen, where she sits on their ripped vinyl chair, her upper body draped on the table, her cheek on the Formica. She stares at the scotch, which Jack has not diluted this time, and her eyes follow the shadowy pattern of flowers the etched tumbler casts around the room. She sits up and drinks. Jack leans against the countertop. He sees Theresa as she is: a mess of brown hair, a heap of clothes, a puffy face. He knows that, since the baby, these are the nondescript terms she has come to associate with herself, whom neither of them recognizes. Her daily speech has taken on the nuanced mumble of subway traffic, confused and sedated — slowing with “What’s the point?” and coming to a full stop with “I have no point.”

Now, as she tells him about her dream, he can see the panic in her eyes. She clasps her head and tells him about the sound like a mosquito trapped in her ear, and of the air pressing on her as she traveled through the sky, how it felt like she was shrinking rapidly, the air wrenched out of her, her skin flaking off like shingles. And through it all the slow motion feeling of disaster that she’s so familiar with. Then bang. Everything is destroyed. The city looks like crumpled wrapping paper on the floor of Christmas morning.

When she finishes, she is crying. “I always wanted a Christmas that looked like that.” She looks to Jack for answers he doesn’t have. He dreads these sentences that run out of her mouth in the night. They are like silk scarves pulled by a magician, scarves that become crows when thrown into the air, and hover overhead.

* * *

These are the days of the five-hundred-year flood, a term the insurance companies have come to curse for its inaccuracy. This is the third such flood the area has suffered in two decades. The homeowners and farmers who removed their flood insurance after the first, not expecting another deluge for 499 years, pound the insurers’ phone lines down. They want answers, or at least some money: Crop damages run over fifty million. Everything exposed to the weather blown in from the west is demolished. Trees, swing sets, struck down nightly. Fields of corn and oats are laid waste, shredded into ribbons by hail, the ribbons abandoned, corrupted, in fields that are now swamp. The stench pushes the farmers back into their beds, under the blankets, unable to grasp what it is they should do with food that has decayed, still milky in its husk.

What is not ravaged by hail and lightning and water is covered with mildew. The towns are rotting away, from the river up. Baseball games are purgatoried into not happening tonight, anyway.

A herd of cattle is flushed downriver. It is Biblical: a pastoral psalm gone wrong, a herd of swine suddenly taking on the people’s demons and hurling itself over a cliff. But this is an image of grace: the many bobbing white heads, the cows and their calves, always so calm. The soft lowing over the gurgle of water. If only all exorcisms could be so gentle.

* * *

Theresa calls this house “The Ark.” She says it seems a person should feel safe inside it. The house belongs to Jack’s parents, Herb and Margaret. They thrive on this kind of compliment, and Theresa is full of them. But Margaret still isn’t sure what her son is doing with a jittery flake of a girl like her; she feels she could melt the girl down to a teardrop just by standing too close. And so, over the years, she’s kept her distance, and shushed Theresa out of the kitchen, secretly hoping her son will move on.

The house is one of the few places to have survived with no damage. This is a source of pride for Margaret. They designed the house themselves (correction: herself), and built it on the highest hill they could find in town. Margaret has taken to throwing her hands up into the air whenever Theresa mentions it. She acts as if she had nothing to do with it, saying, “It’s as if God himself had given us the plans!” She feels favored; He knows this.

The house is large, a three-story with vaulted ceilings and windows so large they take the whole of the Mississippi Valley and bring it in. Jack stands near the window, his outstretched hand moving over the cliff and the rushing current. Margaret, chopping potatoes for lunch, knows that Jack is showing his father — her always good-natured husband — the changing landscape. Jack is a geologist with the university and is working overtime, studying the new currents and unearthed caves, the sudden springs this weather has brought on. But Margaret doesn’t see her good-natured husband when she looks up. She doesn’t see Theresa, either, though she is sure to be lurking nearby. She sees her son, his strong-chinned profile darkened by the sun shining in, claiming all this land as his own with the slightest motion of his hand. The lost child was upsetting, but not overly so; it was almost expected. This is how it should be.

After they eat ribs and potato salad, the four of them mill around the house: small talk, paint swatches, dirty dishes. The TV is flipped on — golf, baseball. Eventually they congregate near the window, and look down at the valley. It is hard not to look at, like a pileup along the highway or a hook where someone’s hand used to be. The tricky part is not getting involved: running off the road, offending with a stare. But here, now, it seems safe to look. Herb says, “All that flooding doesn’t bother us any. Look at it. It only gives us more of that river to enjoy. A man can’t be angry about that.” Margaret nods along in agreement.

The tops of trailers and the peaks of new homes built along the river pop up through the widened current. A man poles a canoe; he pushes off against a chimney, heading for land.

* * *

Main Street is a steep hill.

At the top, the storefronts are blown out. The broken glass that was not washed away in the night is settled in the street. It reflects what remains of the neon signs: Open, Bud Light, Fresh Cheese Curds. The owner of the liquor store sits on his stool behind the register, a broom laid across his lap. On the floor are toppled wine racks and burst bottles in puddles of violet and burgundy. The pale, untreated wood will be stained. His wife told him not to stack the good wine near the window. Thieves, she said. But, no, he said, he will. It’s classy. It pulls the money in: the insurance salesmen, lawyers, a doctor or two. Six-packs can put a roof over your head; Malbec and champagne can put a pool in your yard, or, first, attach a yard to your house. He bends and dips his finger in it, wanting to get a taste of what he has only sold. He puts his finger to his mouth and sucks. No matter how he cleans this floor, his customers will be greeted with this unfortunate birthmark for as long as he can keep the shop running. The beer, safe in coolers along the back wall, he knows will be sold out by the end of the day.

Down the street, the mayor wears flip-flops and a T-shirt because he is at work: the town carries armfuls of soggy books from the library and loads them into truck beds. The water hits just above the knee, the lower thigh — that area the Catholic schoolboys’ eyes have skimmed across for so many years, in this very library, while attempting homework. What was once erotic is now common: the wet T-shirts, the clinging pants. A hand on the back consoles, almost sincerely, instead of searching for the clasp.

Mosquitoes breed in the new still pools and take their fill.

The books drip and flop over the workers’ forearms just like the sandbags with which the town has grown familiar, and, like all things familiar, are cursed for being worthless. Pages fall from spines and coat the water; they wind their way through the streets and head downriver. A TV crew is there for an interview. “We are trying to salvage everything,” the mayor says, “but this is madness. This is inescapable.”

* * *

Enter Sam. Three years old, running across the lawn in a garbage-bag cape. His feet, no larger than decks of cards, slosh through muddy water, ankle-deep. “Tornado! It’s a tornado coming!” he shouts, spinning clumsily, arms out, and topples over into Theresa’s lap.

Sam is on loan for two weeks. Or, put another way: his parents went on vacation. Theresa has heard nothing from Sheila for months, and now she has her son. Sheila has told Theresa the following about the boy: preschool has made him paranoid; he comes home certain that mosquito bites will kill him, that strangers will pluck him from his parents’ arms and force him to clean chimneys (I don’t even know how to clean chimneys! he sometimes adds, mid-sob), that any bag of M&M’s could be filled with pills instead of chocolate. He wants desperately to know what die means, what it really means.

“It will be good practice for you and Jack,” Sheila said, and winked at Theresa.

It was not until late that night that Theresa realized Sheila had never known she was pregnant.

Back in this moment, Sam is running, toppling. The backs of his legs are speckled with mud his feet have thrown up. They are in Margaret and Herb’s lawn. Jack’s parents are bleary-eyed in their lawn chairs. They say that it is only the humidity: “It just gets us down.” They sip drinks — Margaret a Bloody Mary, Herb a martini. Theresa suspects Margaret is trying to drink away the two weeks that Theresa will be staying there with a stranger’s child. And, on top of that, Jack will be gone, traveling, for most of it. Theresa doesn’t care. She feels she needs to be watched. After all, what does she know about children that would keep one alive? Herb slaps at a mosquito on his leg, and then, as if that effort was too great, lazily waves at another on his arm.

Sam turns his head in Theresa’s lap. He asks where the tornado is.

“There is no tornado,” she says. “Look.” She points up. “There’s the sun. Tornados don’t come out in the sun.” And then she can’t help it. She kisses the fat tops of his white feet, her hair falling down and around. She wipes muddy water away with her thumb.

“No,” he says, and grabs her arm. He is frustrated; he believes she has misunderstood him. He rephrases, asks: “But is a tornado gonna come and take me away?” Theresa shakes her head. She wishes there was a better way to reassure him. But as far as she can tell, he just needs to see it not happen for as long as possible. Until he forgets he is afraid, or until a tornado comes and takes him away. From her grandmother’s house, Theresa was able to hear the coal trains as they passed. Whenever she heard the whistle blowing, she took off for the porch, sure the train would jump track, that it was coming into the yard to run her down.

Sam takes off again, twirling past Herb and Margaret. He has a way of tilting his head all the way back and smiling, closed-eyed, when he twirls. He looks like a blind man dancing.

And then he crumples right in front of them; his head falls to one side as if Theresa has just slapped him and he doesn’t understand why. So much so, Theresa wonders if this has happened, if she has slapped him. “Ow,” he whispers, the red rushing to his face. She moves to him, kneels in the puddle beside him. She doesn’t know where to look. Her fingers flit over his body, flip his arms for bee stings. He shakes her hands off his arm.

Margaret shouts over Theresa’s shoulder, “Look at his foot, woman.” There, embedded in the pad of his foot, is the broken top of a glass bottle, debris blown in from last night’s storm.

“It’s okay,” Theresa says. She doesn’t want to pull the glass out yet. That’s when the blood will come. “It’s fine.”

Margaret stands. “What?” she says. “You want it to get infected? Move it.”

“Infected?” Sam says. He pulls his leg up, looks at the green glass buried in it, the color building up under the skin. “It’s gonna fall off!” he says and looks up at Margaret. He reaches down to his foot and pulls the glass out. Blood comes with it.

He shouts at Theresa, “My foot’s gonna fall off.”

She can’t think. “Who told you that?” she asks. It keeps bleeding. She shoves the palm of her hand into the cut. “Who told you that?” She looks up to Margaret, expecting her to do something.

But Margaret is watching Herb, who has just realized his drink has been knocked over. “Hey,” he says, “that was top-shelf.” He spies an olive, speared with a toothpick, floating in a puddle. He struggles to get out of the lawn chair, to bend and pick the olive from the puddle. He studies it. When he sees it is inedible, he throws the olive into his now-empty glass and heads back to the house.

That night, the storms plow through again. In bed, Theresa runs her hands over her feet, her legs, checking for cuts.

When the tornado siren goes off, she carries Sam to the basement. They sit in the crawlspace, wrapped in blankets. She gives him a flashlight, and he dances the beam around the room and into both of their eyes until they see colors.

* * *

Sam’s questions stretch on. “Are there bees out here? Where did Herb’s hair go? Why did somebody steal your bike when you were a little girl? Is somebody gonna steal my bike?”

Theresa answers them as best as she can, a mixture of honesty and distraction. She says, “I think that’s just what happens when you forget things; they get snatched away. Like your ears. When was the last time you remembered your ears?” Sam brings a hand to the side of his face, slowly, as if afraid of what he’ll discover. Theresa quickly pinches his earlobe and pulls her hand away as if she has grabbed it. Sam brushes her arm away and smiles. But he is never distracted for long.

* * *

Through the week, the TV stations play this clip: A train approaches a flooded river valley in Iowa and slows, slows. Its change in direction is slight at first, then becomes obvious. Boys standing by the water’s edge in baseball uniforms run from the tracks. The water rushes up to their knees and higher, slowing them. Behind, the train curls slowly off the track, slinking, like a caterpillar going in for a drink. Coal tumbles off the carts as they tip down and level off, disappearing into the water. The boys are safe — but as the water recedes, it tugs, and they are pulled in, closer to the wreck. Already rotted siding is ripped off homes, and floats. The engine driver escapes and clings to the boards. He kicks his way to land.

Theresa sees this in her dreams, but in them, she is there and Sam is in her arms, his head buried in her shoulder. Her back presses against a wall of limestone and the wave of water travels up, beyond her hips. She allows the waves to pull her legs forward — it is so easy, just a few steps — before she forces herself awake.

Jack is kissing her neck, touching her thigh. She pulls away.

She slips out of bed and pulls on her bathrobe. She walks down the hall, and into Sam’s room. He is sucking his thumb, his pajama sleeve wrapped around his fist. He wakes and pulls his thumb out of his mouth long enough to say, “You’re layin’ with me?” and puts the thumb back in. Theresa nods and lies down. She settles her head on the pillow beside him. They sleep.

* * *

It’s Saturday, a better day, Jack thinks. He’s not working. Theresa is in the kitchen, cutting meat and vegetables for a stew. What is left over, she is placing in gallon-sized plastic bags. Jack sits at the kitchen table, flipping through the paper. He can’t remember the last time Theresa cooked.

Sam stands close to Theresa. He is pointing to everything, the vegetables, the spices, asking why this is cut that way, why she’s putting those dried leaves in there. Jack is amazed. They seem like a perfect match, like the siblings neither one has.

Theresa gives Sam a dried oregano leaf to taste, and he puts it on his tongue, pursing and smacking his lips to dramatize the tasting. He does a dance, bouncing side to bandaged side while he does it. It is a good day.

“Hey. Why’re you wrapping all that up?” Sam asks.

“You know,” Theresa says. “To keep it fresh. So I can keep it for a long time.”

“Hey.” Sam turns and throws his hands up. “I got an idea — you should keep me fresh.” He points back to his chest, and in the same moment, Theresa says, “Wonderful idea,” grabs a new plastic bag from the box, and plops it over his head. They are both laughing. Sam grabs the sides of the bag and pulls it tight against his face. His nose is flat like a pig’s and Theresa rubs her own against it and they both laugh some more. Jack stands. “Theresa,” he says. “Stop.”

She turns and stares at Jack. He can tell she doesn’t get it. Then she traces her arms, her hands back to Sam’s head, and he is beginning to gasp. She rips the bag off of his head, out of his hands. She throws the bag on the stove and the plastic melts onto the burner. She turns to Sam. “Never do that again. Understand me? Never.”

She turns and leaves the kitchen. Jack moves Sam away from the hot stove. He pushes the knives left out on the countertop to the wall. Sam starts to cry, and Jack lifts him up to his shoulder. He looks out the window and sees Theresa pacing on the porch. Her mouth moves; she is talking to herself. Jack is glad he can’t hear what she’s saying.

* * *

A tornado goes through Iowa in the night. A Boy Scout troop stays in the woods. The camp is hit. The cabin’s walls, the roof, are sucked away and blown out into the trees. The boys are left with the concrete floor, their heads covered, trying to cling onto one another: legs and arms attempting to latch. The bunk beds collapse and the wood and mattresses are dodged or hidden under.

Four boys are taken, gone. All the boys are injured. On national television, a reporter interviews a survivor and his parents. The boy is barely as tall as his father’s waist, and is draped in a black garbage bag to protect him from the rain. In the background, the trees are flattened. Khaki clothing is torn, thrown about.

The TV is switched off.

* * *

The storms continue to march through. The president declares nearly the entire Midwest a disaster area, and promises funds will come soon. Each morning, in one way or another, the featured news story is the flood: A tree has fallen onto a woman’s house, and her child is killed. Riverfront businesses are whisked away and jobs lost. Communities are on the verge of becoming ghost towns. Corn production is down, eliminated, and the price of groceries skyrockets. Gas, too. A dam bursts in Wisconsin, and a lake disappears. So do homes. There are no tourists. Residents are arrested: insanity, stabbings, looting.

Throughout town, unheard-of water sources continue to appear. The water table rises so high that geysers emerge from hillsides. The river is no longer the only culprit. In the few moments between storms and tornados, when a temporary lull was once enjoyed, the earth appears to be sobbing, worn out.

The floor of St. Thomas Church cracks in the center, the pattern of the crack radiating like that of a window hit by a bullet. A spring emerges from the crack, and water shoots up past the height of the pews. The TV crew takes in the crucifix, Mary, the saints, finally the spring and the priest. “We don’t know what to make of this,” he says. He, too, is afraid to speak. Is this a miracle or a warning?

* * *

Theresa wakes to thunder. It is past midnight. Jack is away — on the road. She pads down the hall and turns on the TV. The warnings are out. The weather map is clotted with red and orange. Counties are listed. The weatherman is interrupted continually with more warnings of floods, thunderstorms, tornados. Theresa turns the volume up and walks down to Sam’s room. She whispers to him, pulls his thumb from his mouth, and guides him out of bed. He grabs the flashlight from the nightstand.

On their way downstairs, Margaret steps out of her bedroom, arms crossed over her nightdress, and whispers loudly, “What’s all this?”

“Come downstairs,” Theresa says, and keeps walking.

The basement is lit from the lightning strikes shining through the windows. The carpet is wet. It jars them both. In her mind, Theresa can see loose electric wires snaking their way through the walls, heading for the water. Sam lifts his arms out to her, and she picks him up and carries him to the crawlspace under the stairs.

They hear Margaret and Herb coming down. From where they sit, it sounds like many more people. “Oh my God,” Margaret says. She turns on the lights. Theresa looks out the door.

There is water falling in where the ceiling and the wall meet. It is running down in sheets. There is no crack, no open window. It is from, it seems, nowhere.

Margaret runs upstairs and comes back with a pile of towels. She throws them on the floor. “My carpet.” She and Herb roll the towels and line the floor along the walls. But the carpet is already wet through, and the storm is not letting up. Margaret then begins to wipe the walls, gently, like she would a child’s face. She takes hold of Herb’s arm and teaches him the motion.

Sam stands at the crawlspace door, watching this, confused, until Theresa pulls him back in. “Come on,” she says. It is still dry in here, for a few more minutes at least. She and Sam sit bundled in blankets. She twirls the flashlight around and around the small space. The beam dances across the walls. Sam’s eyes follow the revolutions the light makes, and it is like many short days are going by in their world and they are remaining warm and dry and safe.


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