by John O'Toole
Life was good for Nora and the kids. She had slimmed down to a pale, saftig three hundred and eight pounds, sufficient to have caught the eye of Mr. Hardwicke, her caseworker, but not enough to have canceled her disability payments. Olly, the boy, was in fourth grade now, and had pretty much learned to accept his severe limitations without lashing out and braining himself against the blackboard. And Tweed, the little girl, had not been sent home for reasons of personal hygiene in weeks.
Nora had found them a basement apartment on Rosemont Avenue. A "studio." Yeah. She liked the sound of that. A certain urbane cachet to it. And truly amazing, the money they'll shave off the rent if you don't mind your toilet in the kitchen. Or "kitchenette," as the landlord had called it. An alcove with a hotplate, minifridge and old fashioned cow's udder-sink. Precisely six - count 'em, six - linoleum tiles for a floor. This off the main and only room in the place, nearly half the floor space taken up by three inflatable mattresses of orangish-brown viny with little sparkly, silvery things in them. One window looking out on passing shoes and galoshes and, in summer, bare feet, and the neighbor's large brown Catahoula hunting dog, who did his business there like clockwork every morning at ten.
Despite all this recent good fortune, Nora's fat hands still shook uncontrollably. So that everytime she tried opening a box of Count Chocula, or a loaf of Wonder Bread or package of balogna, the contents of each would come bursting out like some startling magical illusion, the poor woman, frankly, too fat to clean it up. Of course, this made luncheon preparation much easier. For, should Olly or, say, Tweed, want, say, a balogna sandwich, all they had to do was grab two pieces of bread from the sink and a slice of balogna off the floor. None of that tedious searching through cupboards.
A good thing, all in all, as their mama rarely rose in time for luncheon anyway, and could often be found still unconscious come dinner. Sunken face-down in her inflatable orangish-brown mattress like some giant squid in aspic. Belching in her sleep, the resultant vibrations causing her to bob up and down on the mattress for a good three or four minutes after the echo had died.As she was doing that steamy Sunday morning when the rains came. At approximately ten O'Clock, one great bulging eye opened whalishly, just long enough for Nora to groggily note that, outside her lone window, not only was the large brown Catahoula not squatting there doing his business, but the previous night's darkness had yet to disperse. End of the world? Well, perhaps, but what of it? She'd led a full life.
How long before the whale-eye opened once again, the woman had no idea, her sleep as deeply timeless as some distant black hole. But this time the other eye opened as well, her entire huge face bulging at a sudden burst of thunder that sounded like an airliner crashing in the courtyard. An hour of same - with lightning bolts as shocking as nuclear explosions - had the poor woman rolling in her sleep like a cement mixer. Then all at once the downpour, like muted applause for a life well led, the thunder having softened to obsessive throat-clearing, reminding her vaguley of her old Uncle Gayle, who'd had himself a definite problem with catarrhd. Nora raised her Buddha-face to check on the kids. Olly, on his mattress, eating fingered gobs of Cheese Whiz and belching. Tweed on hers, in the fetal position, a Woody Woodpecker comic book tented on her head.
Nora fell asleep again, a woodpecker pecking - getup getup getup - at her subconscious. As indeed, the grey aura of afternoon now colored her dreams, a vague sense of shame at the distinct possibility of sleeping through till evening.
The guilt finally woke her, at two p.m. or thereabouts, according to the notoriously unreliable Barbie wristwatch which, for several weeks since the strap broke, the woman had worn tied to her rump roast-sized wrist with one of Olly's old shoe laces. At first she only heard it, a hesitant sloshing, the sound like that of a bashful kid riffling through "Playboy." Olly much too young, though, so the hell with that noise. Oddly lulling though it was.
Another five minutes or so and it was lapping at her face. Good doggy, yes you are. Mama's gonna feed ya just as soon as she gets up. Setting her mental snooze alarm for forty-five more minutes.
Twenty minutes did it, though. The three of them were floating now. Nora waking from a dream in which her image in the bathroom mirror had told her, rather sneeringly, that she didn't HAVE a damn dog. Her whale eyes now open to the sight of the three inflatable mattresses bobbing on a good two feet of water, riding a strong wave caused by the flood having bounded off the apartment's far wall. Single file they sailed, across the dim grey-room, under the cobwebbed arch into the kitchenette, balgona slices floating here like water lilies, the entire little flotilla making a sloshy, seasick B-line toward the back door.
Tweed still asleep, her Woody Woodpecker comic book having fallen off her head into the drink, floating pulpily away now like the once proud flag of a sunken destroyer. Olly in the lead, filling his empty jar with rainwater to wash down all that Cheese Whizz. The boy had the makings of a first rate naval officer, quick-witted enough to grab the coffee can of cash off the tiny counter, perspicacious enough to point out to his mama that, had she not left the back door open the previous night, none of this would be happening. The three carpeted steps leading up and out (carpet ruined) at this point completely underwater, allowing the three of them smooth sailing through the doorway and out into the flooded courtyard.
Nora seated upright now, serene as an inactive volcano. The rain had stopped, a fresh breeze rearranging her eely hair. The clouds had whitened dazzlingly and broken into toilet paper wads. A beaming sun said the sky would be fine now, as long as nobody flushed it. Tweed wide awake, digging into her bluejeans pocket for her trusty plastic harmonica. Playing some Barney the Dinosaur song she had heard on TV.
The mattresses floated the three of them over to the opposite stoop, at which point each grabbed a railing post, docking, as it were. A bird sang somewhere above them, probably perched on one of the high, warped rails of the rat-grey, three story staircase. The creaky stairs, pregnant now with water, leading to the above-ground apartments, high and dry, the rent way over Nora's head.
Olly played lookout. Tweed launching into "Old MacDonald Had A Farm."
"What a lovely outing," said Nora, smiling. Life was good, she thought.
About the author:
After living most of his life in Chicago, John O'Toole recently moved to Los Angeles, where he now works as Cataloger of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The University of Southern California. His stories have appeared in Eclectica, Wild Violet Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Muse Apprentice Guild, and last but hardly least, Pindeldyboz. His poetry has been published in numerous journals in the U.S. and in Ireland. And StoneGarden Press has recently accepted his book of short stories, Beer and Confession, several of which originally appeared right here in Pindeldyboz.