The rush of water through the tub faucet is like ants when they find something dead. My
grandmother is in her bathroom, the too-small door shut as tight as it will shut. I'm on the gritty
floor of the hall closet, wedged in next to the vacuum canister. I'm watching how the light at the
bottom of the bathroom door flickers like flames as my grandmother shuffles around in there. I
can stack two fingers beneath that door. My little sister, Dell, can stack three.
I'd like to pull closed the closet door, but I don't dare. Last time, Dell lit her hair on fire. The long, brown strands had burned to within a few inches of her scalp when my naked, dripping
grandmother doused Dell's head with a wet bath towel. My grandmother no longer leaves lit
candles in the living area when she bathes, but still.
With a shortbread cookie, I try to coax Dell into the closet with me. So I can keep her
safe for a little while. Also because I like how when Dell nestles in my lap she pinches the thin
skin on the insides of my arms. Pinches as hard as she can. "You need this medicine or you'll
die," she says.
But Dell snatches the bait and scurries away. Her left profile facing me, I can't see what
she calls the boy half of her head. Squatting in her pilled, cotton nightgown, her toenails
overgrown and jagged, her girl half looks scavenger.
I know my grandmother has stepped into the water because the plunge of her foot makes
a terrible, hand-reaching-into-your-chest-to-fist-your-heart sound as the water gives way, wedges
open. I think of the diagram our mother showed Dell and me of a sperm wriggling its way into an
oocyte, the name for a human egg. Not really an egg, but so-called because of its roundabout
resemblance, as things often are. Our mother said a sperm has to swim a long distance to get to
an oocyte, like swimming from one continent to another, she said. The way she talked about
sperm, you'd think they were rippled with muscles. But the sperm in the picture looked to me
like a single flower bud of broccoli with its thread stem, the oocyte a hungry head.
The lesson on fertilization was our mother's segue into telling us she and her boyfriend,
Jeffrey, were going to have a baby together. But the conclusion was obvious from the start, what
with the weird way she patted the worn sofa cushion on either side of her and told Jeffrey to snap
photos of the three of us looking at that library book. It was like when Dell tries to tell a joke, but
she accidently announces the punchline before she's completed her set-up.
Dell's too young to know about the before of the sperm and the oocyte, but she's heard
the sounds our mother and Jeffrey made behind our mother's bedroom door, back before our
mother ran off with Jeffrey and left us with our grandmother. "I'll be back soon," our mother
said thirteen weeks ago, dragging a little blue suitcase crammed with her favorite dresses and a
white bikini I hadn't even known she owned. They were going to the beach for a few days, she
said. R and R, she said.
The cookie all gone, Dell wets her thumb and ferries crumbs from the floor to her mouth.
Each thumb strike against the wooden planks sounds like a bug being squished.
I want to suck up every sound in my grandmother's house with the vacuum, make all the
vibrations vanish, but I'm afraid to plug the vacuum into the outlet. Electricity licks from those
holes like a tongue when our grandmother plugs in some appliance. Our grandmother says she
should call an electrician, but she never does. Most of what our grandmother talks about has to
do with things she ought to do but doesn't and won't. Like buy new vacuum bags—the vacuum's
been empty since our mother left. Like hunt down our mother and drag her back here. I picture
our mother a limp doll, dragged by a single raggedy, batting-stuffed arm.
Electricity sticks out its tongue because it's excited about the incoming plug, our
grandmother said one afternoon as she plugged in the immersion blender. She was making
broccoli-cheese soup, which she told us used to be our mother's favorite. When Dell stuck out
her tongue to mean the opposite of excitement, our grandmother said, "You'll eat it then because
I made it and because it's good for you."
The flat, white faces in the wall don't look excited, either. Their features sunken in like the clay portrait Dell made of our mother in preschool a few days ago (a gift for Mother's Day),
poking holes for the eyes and mouth and nose, they look sad-surprised, as though they've
inadvertently driven over a kitten and felt the crunch of its bones beneath the tires. When I told
Dell eyes aren't holes, she said, "But they're called eye sockets and eye balls." When I said,
"OK, but where are the eyeballs?" she said, "Vacation, duh."
I think electricity is just lonely.
And I think it would like to flow through me and Dell and our grandmother as much as
though any appliance. Like that fire excitedly climbing Dell's hair. Dell said those flames were
like the prince in the story of Rapunzel: they climbed her hair to get to the rest of her.
A body is water more than anything else. My teacher showed us a diagram of a girl and
boy, both filled to their shoulders with blue liquid, like partially-used bottles of perfume. Maybe
that's why people like my grandmother and my mother like to soak in the tub so much. The
water inside draws them to the water outside. Their water brain, like how the stomach is a second
brain, lined with more neurons than even the spine.
Electricity wants to be wrapped up inside water, too, which is why you have to be careful
not to let them near each other. Electricity will hurl itself into water fast as anything.
Everything just wants to be wrapped up inside something.
Like how our mother said about Jeffrey that being with him makes her feel as cozy and
secure as a body in a coffin. "Like there isn't anything I need other than him."
I think I know what she means. The vacuum closet is like that. In the dark, I press my ear
against the hollow canister pillow. I cast myself into its clean emptiness. My grandmother's
house doesn't just feel far away. It's like nothing outside that vacuum is real.
is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Pidgeonholes, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, SmokeLong Quarterly
and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review
. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.