Plain China

A Place Without Floors

by Dana Diehl · Susquehanna University
Ripple Dancer, Kavenaugh Oktavec · Loyola College

Nalin wakes to rain drumming on the roof, against the chimney, through the cracks in the walls. She sits up, feeling her bones crack, and breathes. She wonders, briefly, if she’s floated out to sea. There’s a dark, yellowing patch on the ceiling above the bed that makes it look like the house has wet itself, and the river out back is swollen. It pushes against its banks, touching the bases of the hemlock trees that line the yard. It makes Nalin want to walk to the river’s edge in her robe and slippers, dip her hands into the current, feel around in the reeds for what makes it move.

Through the bathroom window she can see neighborhood boys dressed like pirates, floating down the river on a fleet of inflatable mattresses. Eye patches and crooked mustaches Sharpied onto their faces. Red bandanas. Cardboard swords, limp from rain, brandished at each other. The swimmies strapped to their upper arms look so out of place. “Argggh!” they shout as the current spirals them into the center of the river. Nalin’s husband joins her at the window, wrapped in the smell of coffee, hair graying and mussed. Calvin. Cal.

“So much rain,” he says quietly. “It’s got to end soon.”

“Yeah,” Nalin says. But she can imagine the forecast. The big, green mass moving across the map on the television. This is one of those rains that will fall and fall and never stop.

Nalin leans her forehead against the glass. One of the boys’ rafts is sinking, and he doesn’t fight it. The river gulps his thighs, his hips, his waist. “Man overboard!” the others shout. “Mind the sharks!” Their drawn-on eye patches run, streaking their cheeks and coloring the creases in their skin. The boy laughs, water up to his neck. Nalin wishes she could be there with him, wishes she could take him by the wrist, affirm the movement of blood under his skin and pull him to shore. Cal reaches an arm around her and rests his hand on her ribcage. Nalin breathes until the window fogs around her face, masking everything but the tops of the trees.

 

By early afternoon the rain is carving a pond in the dip of the backyard. A dark spot identical to the one in the bedroom has formed in the walk-in closet. The water drips little pools into Nalin’s high heels, blurs the colors of Cal’s ties, gets into a box of shoulder-padded work suits Nalin hasn’t worn in decades. She pulls the clothes, all of them, out of the closet and lays them across the floor. A puffy-sleeved wedding dress. A tux. A homemade sweater knit with red yarn.

Nalin’s mother calls to tell her there’s a flash flood warning in the Forksville area.

“I know, Mom,” Nalin says.

“Are you gonna leave? You can drive to Maryland, stay with me for a few days.”

“No, we’re staying. If we have to, we can move our stuff upstairs.”

The connection is bad, and her mother’s voice cracks and wavers. She tells Nalin that she doesn’t feel comfortable with her and Calvin living alone, so far from family. She says they need a dog.

Nalin chews on the phone cord. “What kind of dog?” Cal moves around the kitchen, picking up bills or old receipts and putting them down again. She wishes he would sit still.

“Get a greyhound,” her mother says. “Get a greyhound, and you’ll be blessed. They’re the only dog in the Bible, did you know that?”

Nalin remembers sitting in the pews at Saint Ann’s Church, her mother singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” close-eyed next to her. She remembers catching daddy long legs that she collected in jars, and an awkward first date chaperoned by her parents. And now Nalin imagines a greyhound, its thin body shaped like a bow and its tail tucked between its legs, cuddling with her in the bedroom as downstairs the kitchen table, the rocking chair, and the unfinished Scrabble game float in the floodwaters. She imagines the wooden-tile letters lifting from the board and drifting around the house, through the letter flap, down the street.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Of course, honey.”

When her mother hangs up, Nalin moves the curtain aside with her finger and looks out into the rain. The river’s color changes depending on the weather. Gray for snow. Blue for sun. Green for thunder. But brown, brown for rain, its ugliest color.

“How’s your mother?” Cal asks.

“Fine. She worries about us.”

Nalin had met Cal the summer she graduated from college. Cal the miner, Cal the tunneler, making a living directing coal and copper excavations. Nalin’s friends made jokes when they first started dating, almost thirty years ago now. About him “digging her.” Early in their relationship Nalin liked to research cross-sections of the earth as if they were maps, wondering if this was how he saw the world. In layers of soil, in cracks in the earth, in hidden pockets of air through which water traveled. In compounds that could ionize into valuable minerals.

They tried having a child once, when they were still a young couple. And one grew: a little, blobby fetus that reminded Nalin of baby hamsters she’d seen. Pictures of it in baby books made her think about how strange it was that the fingers would eventually separate, that the tail of the fetus would split into legs. How strange it was that a body knew how to grow. She became more aware of the goblet-like curve of her uterus, that black void steadily, day-by-day, being filled. And she also knew when the life inside of her stopped.

Cal has moved to the living room now. He’s reading a newspaper, his legs propped on the coffee table, foot tapping to the beat of water on the trashcan outside.

 

When the drip in the bedroom doesn’t stop, Nalin and Cal climb into the attic to find its source. They’ve spent the day replacing pots with plastic boxes, then boxes with trash pails, trying to contain the leak. But they’re tired of the ping of water on water or water on pail. They’re tired of dumping buckets of rain out the bathroom window. Cal carries a roll of duct tape, looped over his arm. They stand with their feet apart, straddling the soft spaces between the beams. Nalin likes this part of the house, where the structure isn’t masked by drywall and paint.

“We’re inside the ribs,” she says, and Cal shrugs.

They step from beam to beam, hands on the walls, feeling for wetness. There are only two boxes in the attic, the rest is bare. Nalin sifts through them as Cal touches his palms to the ceiling. She finds a dead light bulb, a journal, an empty photo frame, a dead cockroach that she flings into the corner.

“Here it is,” Cal says, from the corner. Nalin hears the crack of stretched duct tape.

She sits cross-legged on a beam, watching as he patches the house back together.

 

The rain gets heavier as the night goes on. Cal turns on his old police scanner and they lie in bed, listening to calls for help from neighborhoods downriver. Cal falls asleep as bridge closings are announced. Nalin turns down the volume and watches his sleeping form, tracing with her hand the dips and curves he creates in the comforter. “Canyon State Park, bridge down.” He looks so much thinner than when they met. She never thought she’d miss the belly, rounder than the palm of her hand, or the tree-trunk thighs of his thirties. But now that inactivity and loss have hollowed him out, she misses them. She misses the space he took up. She misses how, in bed, no matter how close to the wall she lay, part of him was always touching her.

Woman requesting help on High Street. Porch collapsing.

When Nalin was seventeen, she wrote letters in her journal to all the people she hadn’t met yet. To her future daughter: You’ll like gardening. You won’t like the color pink. You’ll play soccer. To her future husband: You will be tall and warm and like swimming in creeks, never pools. You’ll know how to catch catfish in the water with your bare hands and how to cook them over a fire. I’m sorry about the weird mole on my lower back. Also for the snoring. I hope you’ll learn to forget these things about me.

She suddenly has the urge to touch Cal in a way that makes him want her or miss her or hate her or love her. She presses her cheek to the concavity between his shoulder blades. She slips her hand under his t-shirt, feeling for the heat of his skin, which is rough, slightly bumpy all over. Nalin touches his spine and slides her hand to his stomach, feeling the hairs that grow around his bellybutton. She kisses the back of his neck, and when he’s about to pull away, holds her lips there.

Cal grunts. He shifts in his sleep, pulling his body into the fetal position. Nalin wills herself to do more, to push further. But the moment has passed, and her husband’s body no longer feels like something she can touch.

She dreams: The river splashes into her socks and makes whirlpools around her dress, which is strange, because she never wears dresses. Her husband is the size of a thumb, and he climbs between her bones, stands inside her ribcage, tickles her from the inside.

 

In the morning the rain is puddling at the foot of Nalin and Cal’s bed. They go downstairs and find that the basement has flooded, brown and muddy, boxes of cereal and apples floating around.

The house next door, built at the bottom of the bank and closest to the river, is submerged up to the back door. The kids, a young boy and a girl, have stuffed nose plugs up their nostrils and strapped raccoon-eye goggles over their faces and are cannon-balling off the roof of the gazebo. Nalin hurries out back, umbrella in hand, and yells to their parents, who wave to her from the second-story window. Do they need help? They shake their heads, and Nalin stands at the edge of the porch, watching as the kids frog-stroke into the floodwaters. Every time they emerge, they hold something. A Wiffle-ball. A garden hoe. Nalin waits for the moment when one of them dives and doesn’t resurface, but it never comes. The kids shout that they’ve found the lawn mower, weeds knotted around the chain, and the birdbath, minnows swimming circles around the rim. The girl shrieks that she saw a dead cat, its tail caught under a log. The boy says no, it’s a rat. They dive again and resurface, deciding that it was their father’s fleece jacket.

When Nalin goes back inside, Cal is running stuff up from the basement. She finds a photo album, ink smudged under the plastic. As he retrieves boxes of slides and Christmas lights and files of geological maps, dripping puddles of muddy water onto the tiles, she flips through the album. Their trip to South Carolina, their tour of wine country, photos of her with a swelling belly. All of these images running into each other, turning to rain in the running ink. Nalin pulls the pictures out of their plastic coverings and lays them out to dry.

 

The day passes, and they watch the river rise. They drink the last of the milk and heat cans of soup, which they eat with end pieces of bread. They watch things float by their house. Debris. Detached pieces of lives. Nalin spots a deer around noon, eyes rolling and tongue red, kicking against the current. She runs outside. She yells to Cal. There must be a way to save it. Grab the hose. The clothesline. Tie a lasso. But Cal puts a hand on her shoulder. He says, “It’ll be fine. Animals are better suited to nature than we are.” Nalin sees the deer’s wide-eyed look. She knows it has no hope. Cal stands, immobile, and she wants to shout at him. She wants to tell him to move, to try, to fight. Nalin takes a step toward the water, but the deer is already two houses away. Three houses. Then it’s gone. So far away she can’t see its ears poking up above the water.

She turns back to Cal. He’s stepped out into the rain with her. He’s looking up at the sky. She walks into the house, shaking her head.

They spend the evening in the living room, listening to the sound of the basement filling with water, sloshing against the cinderblocks. Nalin worries the foundation will crumble, but Cal reassures her that the house was built strong. When the sky goes dark, they don’t turn on the lights, afraid of an electrical spark in the rising water. Instead, they go to the bedroom, light dusty candle stubs, and arrange flashlights on the dressers. They sit in silence on the carpet, watching the black mass of water slide by outside their reflections in the window. Nalin reaches for words to fill the silence, but can’t stop thinking about all the lives the water carries with it. Their old clothes, saved from the damp closet, still hang over the headboard, and Nalin fingers the edge of a silver polyester jacket until Cal takes it from her. She reaches for it, but he wraps the jacket around his back and slips his arms through the sleeves. The sequined cuffs ride up past his bony wrists and the shoulders strain around his collarbones, leaving long shadows on the wall. Nalin watches as he takes one of her scarves, bright pink, covered in tiny, knit roses, and wraps it around his neck. Cal chuckles. Nalin realizes this is a game. Realizes she doesn’t want it to stop.

 

Nalin wakes up the next morning to silence. While Cal sleeps, she slips out of bed and into the bathroom. She peers out the window. The river laps against the house, covering the porch and cutting off the trees at their bases. The sky is solid gray, and the water’s surface is still.

She wakes Cal. “The rain’s stopped.”

Sitting on the counter, they eat handfuls of dry cereal out of the box. The flood has filled the basement and is covering the tiles of the first floor with a brown film. Nalin moves around the house as if she were a child again, jumping from the stairs to the sofa. From the sofa to the coffee table to the kitchen chairs. The ground is lava. Her home has become a place without floors.

Cal suggests they take the canoe out to collect anything they can salvage from the backyard. The canoe is in the garage, and when they empty it and take it outside, Cal chooses the back seat and Nalin takes the center, imagining she’s in the belly of a whale. She props herself on her elbows, watching the little whirlpools stirred up by Cal’s paddle. Together, they canoe over the vegetable garden, past sunflower faces and the tips of pine trees. They find Nalin’s plastic garden gnome, her watering can. They find the neighbor’s flowered dress, which had been hanging on the clothesline the day the rain began, in knots around the fence. Cal reaches out with the paddle, pulls the dress into the canoe. “A gift,” he says to Nalin. He smiles, the hollows in his cheeks filling. She takes it, fabric limp and dripping. She drapes it over her limbs, arranging it, erasing the voids her body can’t fill. As Cal propels them over the backyard, she leans her head against his knees, curls her legs against her chest, and listens to the water lapping against the sides of the boat.

About the Author

Dana Diehl · Susquehanna University

Dana Diehl earned her B.A. in creative writing at Susquehanna and is currently an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. “A Place Without Floors” appeared in RiverCraft and was also published in the Winter 2012/13 issue ofSalamander Magazine.

About the Artist

Kavenaugh Oktavec · Loyola College

Kavanaugh is a native of St. Augustine, Florida, and a graduate of The Bolles School. A senior in the Loyola Honors Program, she is majoring in art history and journalism with a minor in photography. Her photograph first appeared in Loyola’s Garland.