Last year on the Fourth of July this town had record drought; this year, they have record rains. But the good people here go on blowing things up in spite of everything. From my spot on the porch I listen to the whistles and blasts of their rockets. The rain falls in sheets off the roof and pools in a moat around the perimeter, a watery bulwark. The house does not have gutters. Adam and I failed to notice this when we signed the lease, just as we failed to notice the gaps between the walls and the floors, the possible sinkhole in the backyard. It was only a week later, with the moving boxes sagging in the heat by the side of the road, that I became aware of the way the floor dips in places under my feet, the way the porch slopes to one side. The neighbors tell us the house was actually built in North Carolina and trucked here, over the mountains, to Tennessee, which is why it sits so unevenly on its foundation. I’ve tried not to let this worry me; I have a history of putting too much stock in metaphors.
Across the street, two boys in bright orange hunting jackets trudge through the empty lot, lugging a backpack between them. They stop in the middle of the field and tilt their faces toward the sky, considering. Then they bend over the backpack and set to work.
I’m a stranger to this place. The neighbors tilt their heads when they speak to me, paying close attention to my vowels. Once, when Adam and I first started dating, he told me a story about a sinkhole that opened beneath the high school gym when he was a kid. Someone bounced a basketball just right and suddenly the entire floor gave way. I was horrified: where I come from, the earth is relatively steady, protected by a hard layer of clay. Adam grew up here; he’s comfortable walking on ground that is constantly shifting. It’s why he’s unsurprised when the construction project off the square uncovers the remains of three Confederate soldiers beneath the floors of a house. Here, the past is always just inches beneath you: one false step and it comes surging up. I like to think of the past as something I’ve swum up from the bottom and dragged myself out of, to solid ground. But maybe there is no such thing.
The boys have taken off their hunting jackets and rigged them up over their heads like a tent. On the road across the field, a truck sounds its horn, and a distant rocket rises and blasts the clouds with purple light. The boys lift their heads and watch it go. Then they work on, determined.
It is Adam’s policy never to talk about the past. At first I thought this was because he’d made peace with it, but now I see that it’s about staying ahead of it, moving quickly enough that if the ground does give way, you’ll have the momentum to keep moving. Every few years, he sheds the people around him like a skin and wriggles free, lighter. He has said that this will never happen with me, but I don’t believe him. Maybe that’s why there’s a feeling this morning I can’t shake: that this house is just an island in the middle of our lives. That we have only washed up here, together, for a time.
When the rain slows, the boys lift their jackets away and nod to each other. I rise from my chair to get a better look. One of them flicks a lighter; they duck their heads, then they grab the backpack and their jackets and take off running. I grip the porch railing and shout to them, but then the thing in the field shrieks and rises off the ground in a streak of brilliant light. For a moment, time slows; the thing seems to levitate over the field. Then it explodes with such force that I’m thrown back against the side of the house. The ground trembles. The neighbor woman across the street runs out onto her porch. It starts to rain again, hard and fast, but this time the water seems to be coming up from the ground faster than it falls from the sky. Slowly, then more rapidly, the road floods over. By the time the boys have picked themselves up, the water is at their ankles. By the time they reach the road, it’s at their knees. The neighbor shouts something about the river, the dam, and I watch as the moat around the house spills into the yard, as the yard becomes a lake, as the water rises and laps at the base of the porch. The current sends the boys into the woman’s yard and they scramble onto her porch, then shimmy onto the roof. I wrap my arms around the railing as the water rises higher and higher. But the house does not submerge the way the others do. The water sweeps underneath, loosens the house from its foundation, and lifts it up, buoyant. Then I am moving, swept along in the current, past the house with the faded Confederate flag on the garage, past the gas station and the Dollar General and the new high school with its big sinkhole-proof gymnasium, past the battlefield site where three thousand soldiers died in three days, past the old square and the University buildings and the lab where Adam is still at work, past the armory and the clusters of new subdivisions and Kroger stores, on and on, out into open country, past where the river should have stopped. And there is no time for thinking about where I am going, or how long the house will hold. There is only the sky and the water and—for now—the distinction between them.
Notes from Guest Reader Jen Michalski
The imagery draws you in, and also the abrupt part about the fireworks. The metaphors work well, and the voice is great. A solid and memorable piece all around.