Fault Line

I drag myself from bed with a magazine of white smiles clamped beneath my elbow, and I’m almost alive in the ruined hallway. Mold dots the floorboards; the ceiling’s splotched gray from water leakage—It’s old markings, our landlord said, Call me if the spots spread. I drip lukewarm coffee on the carpet, dodge twigs and crumpled leaves: I have this kind of morning whenever I work dinner shift and then follow Lauren, the dark-eyed waitress I ’d trained, out the back door to her truck, to the woods, and lose track of time. 

Smiles on a day like this make my head pound less. The cleaned-up magazine girls with smooth skin and bright eyes, the stories of famous people redeemed from heartache, drugs, childhood—all this sterilized happiness is my form of meditation. All the accumulated grit can be boiled down, scalded off, eventually. 

I fall asleep with my magazine, and twenty minutes later UPS’s familiar gorilla knock doesn’t get me off the couch. More of Eric’s books, probably, with long word titles and pictures crammed into small, tidy frames. That’s what academics believe: big words redeem us, shrink human emotions and package them—though Eric claims they do the opposite, expanding your mind. He says nothing’s simple anymore: “It’s like everything in our society, in our nature. It’s dirty and complicated, and I’m trying to polish this little tarnished space . . .” 

We used to have coffee together. Fry eggs, slice melon, listen to the weather—usually cool and rainy, since that was in Michigan—and we ’d feel healthy walking to the library bundled in sweaters, reading near radiators, waiting for our restaurant shifts. But now I’ve lived with Eric’s typing for four years, hearing it through these damp southern walls even in my sleep, even while I shower; I’ve relocated my life so he could turn old metal to golden fire he’ll huddle around with the half-dozen people in the world who know what he’s talking about. Meanwhile I play with a stick in the woods fondling lichen, rustling branches, digging holes. Maybe I stay with him because I like pushing myself against this contrast; I use the smallest words, trying to breathe fresh air into his stuffed head, and when he wrinkles his brow I imagine chiseling his skin as if I’ll find the old Eric smiling quietly inside. 

_____

Almost time for my lunch shift at the Greenhouse. Fresh-faced in skirt and farm boots, Lauren will be there whistling ominous ballads in the kitchen, wearing her black hair back so her dark eyes flash. Red scratches will cover her arms; she’ll bump me at the pickup counter with a hitched smile, as though she has leaves in her pockets, roots stuck in her teeth. 

She drove us last night to Sokol Park in a rumbly truck with dirty mats and dried mud smeared across the console. With flipped-off headlights her truck sauntered down a path reserved for hikers and horses while we bitched about screwed drink orders and torn-bill tips—work a pile of blankets we shook off with spite. We ’d been here before, veered off path with branches scratching the windows and black trees pitched against the sky. She killed the engine, and we opened doors to an ambush of bugs crying and animals rustling for food.

“Everything sounds hungry,” I called over the hood, following the truck’s perimeter, swatting whatever pricked me: twigs, spider webs, mosquitoes.

“At least things find their own food here,” she said. “We don’t need to smile.”

The truck ticked between us. We met at the grill, smiling our gray smiles anyway, and Lauren slipped two blue pills in my hand. I swallowed them. She pulled me from what still ticked of civilization; the ground crunched with our feet moving fast through vines, brambles, and outspread branches—my first time here, in a skirt, had taught me to wear jeans and long sleeves if I didn’t want puffed red scratches—until we came to a semi-clearing. 

We traversed splayed roots and thin-stick plants we pushed aside or broke. By a tree root thicker than our torsos, Lauren dug her nails in the ground and brought up a fistful of black earth. Hanging out with her the past year had been a lesson in outdoor flavors: she had me licking rocks and tasting soil for bitterness and softness, tracking minerals. She held a finger toward me, and the dirt cracked between my teeth tasting like old potato skin. 

Her arms were vines. This fling with Lauren didn’t really count. I followed her thighs, allowed Eric to flicker in as a reminder he was lost and so I might as well be lost, too. The forest smelled damp; moisture clung to the branches above us like decoration. Life wasn’t civilization with Lauren. The place got in my sinuses, and I became vines, too: draped, hung, and peaceful. 

_____

Still no sound from Eric. The box of books on the porch would be an excuse to barge in and break the lights in his mind, elicit his shocked look as if I ’d woken him from death. “Just me!” I ’d say in the doorway. “A little smudge! Another tarnished space!” 

September mornings in Alabama are a humid eighty degrees heading toward the mid-nineties. The courtyard, after last night’s festivities, appears ravaged in the bright sun: crumpled beer cans litter stoops, and the long, dried grass looks like scattered scarecrow. I no longer attend these communication-department courtyard parties, which progress from bemoaning the state of dissertations to bemoaning every institution in society; Eric and I used to argue there about movies and pop jingles as though they were curiosities, not demons destroying the world. Now the doctoral students gather nightly around a bonfire planting stats and article citations they can draw into themselves in some medieval-to-enlightenment ritual. 

I wasn’t missed last night. And Eric wasn’t even surprised when I popped into bed at 3:00 a.m. with dirt and brambles in my hair like a ruined nymph. “Just one more year,” he murmured. “Keep the damage to a minimum.” 

In the courtyard this morning, Tilly with the sharp knees and elbows squints from her concrete stoop. Seeing it’s me she returns to her laptop and pecks a few beats. Once I leave she’ll come bug Eric—How many words today? Any new lesions? She’ll show off the marks on her wrists from how they rest on her keyboard; she’ll show the inside of her mouth she bit through. (“Can’t you scare her away?” Eric asked me once, as if I ’d bare my teeth and claim him cave-woman style. “I’ve seen her chewed lips,” I said. “Her chomp’s worse than mine.”)

On the porch, the box from UPS is addressed to me, from my rich aunt’s estate; she died last month, and Mom said Expect Something Big, which meant Expect Something Weird. My aunt hadn’t left her house in years; she received weekly deliveries and lived off money from writing a few detective novels in the eighties. I saw her last when I was fourteen, her foyer filled with mysterious boxes. The morning before we returned home she indulged me by opening some. I ’d wanted to open all of them. 

A guy in Eric’s cohort crunches through the courtyard. He’s sickly pale with a dark beard; all guys here wear beards to showcase the worth of their time, as if the uglier their faces the more cultivated their insides. He keeps his head down, mumbles “Morning,” seeming to fear he might melt under its light. 

“Glorious,” I mumble back, peeling the box panels slightly wet with humidity. I’m barely acknowledged here, though I’ve done masters work in English and philosophy and le Français. In the box’s cardboard recess lies a navy blue felt hat, elegantly peaked, with exotic orange and turquoise plumes. When we visited my aunt she wore these kinds of hats around the house. Mom said probably she was going bald. 

I lift the fancy hat, and beneath it is a check. The hat’s feathers sway even though there’s no breeze; the courtyard, normally a wind tunnel, is eerily still. The hat fits tight on my head with sobering pressure. I examine the check and consider my options. It’s not like if I leave this Eric I’ll run into the old one, who planted flowers and made squash soup and some days pretended our life was a musical and narrated every action in song. The only way back to him was through his skin. I just had to find the right piece to peel. 

Mornings after their courtyard parties, everyone gets to work early. In his stuffy office, Eric’s asleep on his keyboard. I shake him awake.

“One more year.” He breathes his mantra and slumps back in his threadbare chair with a hand on his head. “These clouds are cumulonimbus. I need to de-weather my brain.” 

Streaks of white run through the dark leather seat; half-torn strips flutter from the back like loose gauze. Eric doesn’t notice my hat. His eyes look flat, whatever flame he sparked quickly rained on.

I straddle his lap, tug his beard, feel sorry for him. He knows he deserves whatever punishment I dole him. 

“Maybe the courtyard brings the clouds,” I say. The keyboard has left an imprint: teeth pressed against his left cheek, something breathing on him while he slept, ready to chomp. 

_____

Holding my aunt’s check the way a boy might clutch a store-bought magic trick, Eric grins indulgently but his hand shakes, flattening the corner I crumpled. He lays the check on his keyboard. “This changes things.” His arm snakes around my waist. The gray window strains the light so the air feels thin. A hundred silver thumbtacks are scattered across the wall like shrapnel. Only one torn piece of paper remains pinned: the word post-structuralism in red Sharpie underlined twice. 

“I can’t wait a year to move out of this cave.” My voice quivers. I want to remind him this misery’s his fault, but my scaffolding collapses, crumbling in a disastrous heap, leaving me with fluttery dusty relief. “Nothing here feels healthy.”

Eric nods. The money’s loosened him, too. We tip our foreheads together, but the felt hat prevents us from touching. There’s no way we can last another year. It’s this apartment, this courtyard, all these miserable doctoral spirits—they’ve infected us. 

“Let’s move across town where they can’t find us,” he says. “Everyone here’s making me crazy.” 

I sling my arm around his neck, sniveling. “I want a house.”

“Let’s be practical. Find an apartment on a tenth floor, with a pool on the roof. Or rent a house. Save money for next year.”

“We need our own space.” I’m in his arms now like a damsel. A house matters more than a wedding ring beside my four-year-old engagement ring; I want space to shape ourselves into a new us without interference. 

“Alright,” he says. “We’ll shock our systems with a fifty-thousand-dollar down payment.”

We get up from the chair nervous and giddy. Moving down the hall we touch each other’s wrists and ribs and rediscover our bones alive and moving. I imagine Eric climbing out of himself rewired like a flipped switch. He leaves to pick up Realty Times while I call scratchy-voiced into the Greenhouse claiming the flu. In the bathroom, I hang my feathered hat on the door as a reminder my life’s changed entirely. 

I scrub off grit, clogging the drain with pebbles and leaves, feeling grateful. Probably my aunt doesn’t mind being dead. She died in that house already closed up like a giant tomb. Last time, deteriorated from lack of sunshine and fresh air, she ’d stretched her arms and run fingers down both walls of the hallway coming toward me. She said, “A haunted house is a haunted mind,” sweeping her hand high to touch the feathers on her fancy hat. “I own my ghosts.” 

Eric comes home growling like a caged animal let loose. He runs me dripping and rope-haired into the bedroom and pries open the nailed-down window the landlord told us to keep closed. Heat and humidity blow in with the light, and with the comforter over us we sweat in the new darkness, half-suffocating in this fever we want to run up then break. 

Afterward, we smoke cigarettes and leaf through house listings while imagining ourselves royalty in bay windows, on two-story balconies, in Jacuzzi master baths. Telephones ring, knocks come at the door, but we duck from the open window; the noise of our old life doesn’t matter. A new space promises new breaths, different-sounding footsteps, all of them ours. Eric, disgusted with himself in the bathroom mirror, shaves his beard and makes an afternoon appointment at a bank. 

I find the dress and heels I ’d bought for the communication department’s “Welcome Gala” four years earlier—beer and white wine spritzer in a faculty member’s basement. Eric wears his teaching blazer, takes my hand in his, and Tilly watches us leave. One of the beards ducks his head on the sidewalk as if he doesn’t know us. Eric’s jaw is tense as he drives our rust-streaked Honda downtown. 

Inside the cold, sleek bank, we and my aunt’s check are escorted to a windowed room off the lobby. There, a man with sideswept hair and a deep southern accent breaks the news sweetly: our occupations as student and waitress don’t instill confidence; our credit lags behind our newfound wealth. A printer purrs, and at the bottom of ten columned pages he fingers a figure that sends Eric and me back to Realty Times with a tempered sense of reality. 

In tattered blazer and scoop-neck dress, we sit soberly by the burst-through window. The evening air sweeps in with the mosquitoes, and across the courtyard Eric’s comrades light torches and circle up with laptops. They glance at our window, but Eric studies the realty listings as he once studied books with framed pictures. 

What had come out of my aunt’s boxes that last morning? Wool sweaters, jarred peaches, chocolate bars, a camera. She was so thin that her strength when tearing back the packaging tape seemed inhuman. Something had been living in one box—a rat or a giant bug. Mom shrieked, but my aunt laughed and took a photo as it scampered into the cracked wall. “Company,” she said. “Off to join the others.” She collapsed the boxes, holding them by their sides and stomping her slippered foot through the bottom. 

Even if the house we find is as ruinous as this apartment, it’ll be ours. No doctoral students stirring up clouds, no twigs and leaves dragged in from nights with Lauren. We’ll control the ghosts better when they lurk in our own dirt.

_____

All week while Eric and I house-hunt, I call in sick to the Greenhouse. Then Eric decides he can no longer avoid his dissertation advisor. He flattens crumpled papers while I lie on the couch and trace white smiles in my magazine. Made the best of it. Faced her demons. Mounted the saddle and rode the worn path back home. I’ve memorized the jargon, these fall-and-redemption stories of the shamed, baked in suffering and then emerging from the oven gold and flakey. 

Eric rushes past with paper rustling in his arms. “Just a couple hours!” 

He slams the door, and I drag myself to the mirror in black leggings and a stretched gray T-shirt. I fold and tuck my hair elaborately with shiny pins, scratching my scalp so it tingles. Then I put on my aunt’s feathered hat and set out for work in disguise.

The Greenhouse is in an old motel lobby flanked by cheap home-goods stores and a bridal boutique. Long wooden picnic tables fill the restaurant; idealized paintings of farmhouses, golden grain, and cows in emerald grass cover the walls; and from the ceiling hang air ducts painted blue and wispy white. Windows line the entrance, but the restaurant dims in the back down a few steps from the main floor. Students gather in this carpeted area with laptops, headphones, and waxy worn books to chain-drink fair-trade coffee we secretly mix with Folgers.

No one complains about the burnt chemical undertone. The milkshakes are organic ice cream flavored with artificial syrups; the pork and hamburger patties are local, delivered by farmers in dirty white pickups, but the potato buns and iceberg lettuce come in a semi from a distributor, along with a bunch of other chemical-laden junk the cooks use to decorate the ethical meats. Not that I mind consuming toxins, but I’m glad to catalog what goes in. Displaced academics don’t ask questions, relieved to find a menu Down South boasting healthy local food served by hipsters with dirt-stained fingers quoting Thoreau and Emerson, as if we had washed up from a morning foraging forests and tilling fields when most of the stains really came from packaging marijuana and having sex the night before in the dirt. 

I hear Joe the manager laughing with Lauren and the cooks in the kitchen. Joe’s a forty-year-old hippie with thinning hair and a handlebar mustache he grew for a costume party, then kept, saying dismally, This is what they expect from me. He’s expressed disappointment with my bad attitude lately, threatening to hide me in the kitchen or release me to the trash alley if I can’t smile and emphasize how cage-free our eggs are—These eggs never see a cage! They wouldn’t even recognize it!—and then he gets mad about what he calls over-enthusiasm. 

I breeze through the double doors, and the stiffness of my aunt’s hat makes my head feel healthy. Joe drops his smile, but not entirely. He crosses his arms and examines me. I feel proper as a southern debutante. 

Lauren measures coffee. She wears a floppy dress and laced boots to her knees. “What pretensions,” she says, trailing coffee grounds across the counter. Her hair’s wet and pushed back with a metal-toothed headband.

“I’m a lady now,” I say.

“More like a peacock,” Lauren says. 

“It’s the male peacocks with the feathers,” Joe says.

“I was talking about humans,” Lauren says, “where women wear the feathers.” 

Joe studies me as though deciding if the hat’s a gesture in the right direction. Lauren flips on the coffee maker, which sighs as if it’s too tired for this, then grumbles resignedly and heats up. 

“My aunt died,” I say. “She was my hero.”

Joe sighs. “Wear the hat. I’ll have Benji create a special around it. Eggs Aristocrat.”

I almost fall over curtsying. 

“Careful, Dixie.” Lauren grabs my arm, laughing. 

“I want farm-girl smiles,” Joe says. “The genuine dumb kind, not the sarcastic kind.”

“I’m an aristocrat,” I say. “I’m supposed to be the villain.”

Joe leaves, and I roll silverware clumsily. Lauren leans against the counter, lifts forks, picks crusted food with her fingernail. She tells me about the Deluxe Frontier tent she got last week for her nineteenth birthday, a brilliant patchwork of canvas, nylon, and mesh. “Twice I slept all night in the woods. The bugs reach this hysteria around five and I wake to their shrieking, and no one’s around so I start shrieking, too. Then this morning a couple jogs by with their dog, and the dog freaks. To the people I blend in, but the dog can’t handle it.” 

I watch her dark-stained fingers. “It’s still walls.” 

“Look, I spend enough time in the dirt.” She lifts her skirt and shows a half-dozen puncture-scabs on her thigh. “Bugs bite.” 

The double-doors swing open as though punched. The skinny new dishwasher shuffles in wearing tight jeans and a baseball hat turned backwards. He fastens his eyes on Lauren, grunts a greeting, then props himself against the counter beside her. She stands on her toes and rests her chin on his shoulder. “You smell like autumn,” she says. 

“When dead things burn bright.” The dishwasher looks young, incapable of facial hair. The cook yells at him, but he and Lauren stand still, only touching where her chin digs into his shoulder.

“There’s no autumn in Alabama,” I say. 

They remain eye-locked, sparks and fireworks seeming possible. When he shuffles toward the cook, Lauren comes back to me dopey. 

“It’s like you’re trying to grow something in the air between you,” I say.

She grabs white mugs and clunks them on the counter. “I wish matter worked that way. It’s just energy more or less wasted. What if we found a way to funnel lust into something productive?” 

“Like a baby?” 

She laughs and dribbles coffee on the counter. “I mean something useful.” She hands me a mug and cradles hers, narrowing her eyes. Through the dangling pots and pans, we see the dishwasher’s back. His hat has a picture of a crab on it.

“Sorry I missed your birthday,” I say.

She shrugs. “You can make it up to me. Did you go to the funeral?”

“She didn’t have one. My aunt never cared about living.” I put down a napkin roll, show her my scrubbed arms. “Just so you know, I’ve got to be responsible now. I’m all cleaned up.” 

Her eyes scan mine. She touches the tips of my fingers and jolts back as from an electric shock. She’s like that—unashamed, all this energy on the surface. She smirks, says, “Sure, Careful Dixie,” backs away with the chipped mug near her lips. 

_____

A week later, Eric and I put a bid on an old house near the river. We meet there with a gray-haired house inspector, at least three hundred pounds. He pulls on an orange jumpsuit and with a flashlight wriggles in and out of the house’s private parts. Our real-estate agent, who looks like a teenager just discovering makeup, disappears in the back bathroom To give you two some time! 

I touch the orange and turquoise feathers on my aunt’s hat, for luck, and Eric and I take another tour. Hinges creak, the floor cries, claws scurry beneath us. When we pass the back bathroom, we hear heaved breaths like the sound of someone sobbing. 

On the scuffed living room floor, we sit in fancy clothes as if needing to make a good impression. When the house groans, I run my finger along a crack in the wood, say “Poor house.” It sat here six months, abandoned, a body at peace. Now it’s prodded and measured with metal tools and instruments and an overweight man squeezed inside it. 

“He knows houses better than us,” Eric says. He watches me trace cracks. All the time it’s his choice to watch or not.

“This feels like the apartment,” I say. “Old and haunted.” The inspector grunts below us and mutters Jesus Christ! I imagine the crawl space swallowing him—the sacrifice. 

“We’ll get away from the courtyard.” Eric turns toward the paint-splotched window where the sky grays for a storm. Since he met with his advisor last week, his mind’s slipped back to his work, flying fast this minute down roads to his computer in Graduate Student Living. “There’s no ghosts here,” he says. “It’s only the weather gets in and corrupts things.” 

I stretch one leg and touch his wrist with my foot. “How many words can you type a minute?” 

“Zilch, lately.”

“You’re wasting time here with me.” I think about Lauren in the woods with the dishwasher and the storm coming. One night, caught with her beneath a rocky shelf, my dress became soaked with mud until I didn’t know where I ended and the Earth began. 

Eric grabs my ankle and grins. My shoe has gray sequins; he turns it so they sparkle. “Remember these years aren’t the good ones. They’re the tunnel we suffer through to the light.” He wears a white shirt buttoned around the wrists. Without his beard, his jaw looks antiseptic, ready to slice. 

“Look at this fireplace!” the agent says, wandering in. She examines the iron well, swept clean but stained gray. “It really works, you know!” We hmmm encouragingly, though it’s too hot to imagine ever needing it. She paces the room finding other features—intricate crown molding, sturdy plaster walls—but I notice the molding sags and the walls are nicked as though sharp, heavy things had been rammed into them. The agent’s face looks grainy and flour-caked in the faded light. 

Finally the inspector emerges, grime-streaked and wiping his fingers delicately on a napkin. He tells us of structural problems, questionable thatch-jobs, mushrooms of mold in the crawl space, an ancient tree clogging gutters and vents with leaves. A black streak on his cheek distracts me from what he’s saying. His skin’s peppered with dirt and rot.

“How long can we live here before things crumble?” Eric asks.

“Maybe three years with the roof,” the inspector says. “The crawl space, you know. It’s about air quality.” 

“Is this worrisome?” I ask.

“Well,” he says. “It’s an old house.”

_____

“Whatever,” Eric says in bed back in Graduate Student Living. The storm sprays in the window, misting our faces. “We can open windows, bring in plants. We’ll be out in a year.”

“What if you take longer finishing?”

“I just need to clear the clouds.” He gets out of bed naked. We ’d come straight to the bedroom after the inspection—to avoid talking, maybe, or for the assurance things were still changed between us for the better. “I need to be somewhere not filled with other people’s thoughts.” 

“He said there’s things living beneath the floor.” 

“You think things don’t live under us here?” His face is too sharp without the beard. His words clank with no hair to soften them. “As long as it’s not a girl with bruised wrists, maybe I’ll actually get some work done.” He smooths the blanket on his side, then comes to fix it around me. 

“I never thought about the space beneath us,” I say, wondering if he’s sleeping with Tilly. There’s damaged air everywhere—spores of mold and fecal matter, sadness that humans taint a place with—and there’s no way to keep track of these poisons. “Stay,” I say. In the courtyard, the storm dampens things, drives most people inside, quiets them. But Lauren’s out there somewhere letting it drown her. 

Eric tucks the blanket beneath my shoulders as if I’m a child. His computer’s hungry, he says. It’s been abandoned for days and now demands an hour or two. I want to follow him to the back room and shake him: You’re destroying yourself for a little fire in your head. Instead I loosen the covers and reach for my aunt’s hat. The feathers have grown ragged from so much fondling, but I run my fingers through the soft ruffled ends. I pull onto my lap a wet magazine’s promise of a glossier future. 

_____

The storms throughout the first week make it unclear if it’s the weather or us the house hates. The frame creaks for so long the foundation must be twisting. The vents sound gravelly, like dirt hurled against metal. I scour the pocked wood floors without protection, just me, scrub brush, and Ajax, while Eric writes ecstatically in the room near the back bathroom where the wind against the window still sounds like someone sobbing. 

His office is thick with stale air; he types in the stormy near-dark with the computer glowing. He won’t let me open the window, fearing change will throw his thoughts off balance. I soon avoid his room completely—what, did I expect him to be scrubbing grit with me? 

At night he comes looking for me, happy and hungry, and we eat pizza in bed. I tell him which corners I polished and he strokes my legs greasily. 

“I’m so close,” he says. His face is smooth and clear of worry. “Maybe less than a year now.” 

“I’m glad you’re happy because your work’s happy,” I say, “but it’s got nothing to do with me.” 

He hugs my legs. “All the work I do is for you. I just need to make it to the end.” 

_____

I avoid the Greenhouse. There’s something immaculate about Lauren and the dishwasher with their sparked eyes. The night before my aunt’s check came, Lauren drove me home from the woods and told me the blue pills she ’d fed me the past year were birth control pills, probably expired. “An estrogen high,” she ’d said, giggling. “Don’t worry. It’s still chemical.” She pulled to a stop sign and fixed her eyes on me, and we didn’t move until a truck drove up with a horn like a siren.

Humidity soaks our new home’s walls. The mildew smell mixed with cleaner pushes me to open the windows, and the warm breeze sweeps a fresh pine scent in from the river. I close my eyes and lean into the wet screen, resting my throbbing hands and raw knees, and there is pleasure in owning something so much bigger than I am. The house dwarfs me in size, in history; built ninety years before I was born, it will be here in some form after I die—the bricks and cement at least, covered in grass or carted off to fill new pits. 

I expand my mind into the attic, the crawl space; I gather every duct, tile, and crack, and I hold them until I pulse with the house’s energy. Nature could never belong to me, but the house will be mine in all its vastness. It pitches and creaks; it knocks out the lights, but its ruin belongs to me. Or will eventually, once I peel back the layers of grit.

When the storm dies off, the humidity settles around the house in a fog, and for two nights Eric doesn’t come to bed. I don’t see a sign of him, don’t know if he’s eaten. He’s close to the end of his pages, I think; maybe this is almost over and he’ll emerge from the room ablaze. 

The floors bulge. In the giant, empty foyer, the wood boards rise like a fist lifting from beneath. A tumor grows at the edge of the bed beneath a rug I ’d ordered online. 

“The inspector said they might buckle,” Eric says when I tell him through his door. “It’s the air expanding. Put a fan in the crawl space.” So I go online and order a fan. I order crackers and soup and cleaning supplies and wait for the house to fill with boxes.

_____

All afternoon the next day, pounding comes from Eric’s room. I pull on my aunt’s tattered hat to feel healthy, and I slice cheese and make a sandwich. When I crack Eric’s door, his office is littered with popcorn pellets he’s knocked from the ceiling with a blue rubber ball. He slumps in his ragged chair. 

Cracks cry from different parts of the house like shots, but he doesn’t notice. I close his door and carry my sandwich plate tight against my stomach. Around the house, fault lines are erupting where the bulges used to be. Boards angle in peaks like mountains with cracks running down the center. I step over the small ranges and feel the house heave, as though it doesn’t want to be broken. But I won’t go to work; I won’t leave the house. I’ll be right here holding on as the foundation settles down. 

 

Jessica Hollander’s story collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place won the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published in 2014 by the University of North Texas Press. Her stories have appeared in many journals, including Cincinnati Review, the Journal, Sonora Review, Redivider, Bat City Review, and Whiskey Island. Hollander received her MFA from the University of Alabama and teaches at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.