The day the tornado hit, Gladys and her partner Emma had lived in the screened-in back porch of the Sumner House on Mulberry Street for three weeks, their bed a camper mattress, their nightstand a moving box marked “museum catalogues” in red ink. Pressing further into the house—a 1905 two-story craftsman with a basement and eight bedrooms and two staircases—wore them to the bone, as Emma would say, so progress had been slow. Emma was eighty-two. Gladys, seventy-nine. And the house was a jumble of all the things Emma’s late grandmother had accumulated until her death in 1978. Ever since, the responsibility of watching over the house and its contents had been passed down in Emma’s family. “It’s every flea market I’ve ever been to, stuffed into one house,” Gladys, wedging further into the entryway, wearing a pink jacquard pantsuit she’d sewn for herself, had said when she first saw the interior. Gladys had been a collector at one time and knew the value of the vintage Coca-Cola dispenser and the walnut Victrola in the array she could just make out from where she stood. But it was everything else—the syrup bottles, the McCormick’s tins, the toothbrushes with the squashed bristles, the fishing tackle, the bars of soap whittled down and wrapped in waxed paper, and on and on—that made Gladys’s jaw tighten until her ears itched and her cheeks flushed and she thought maybe she’d stop breathing unless she could empty this house altogether.
Dust motes swam over the top of the Zenith, the row of radio clocks, the arched back of the Victorian settee. Windows darkened. Eaves popped. Gladys maneuvered sideways through the clutter of the kitchen and onto the back porch where Emma sat on the mattress reading the copy of Wuthering Heights she’d found mildewing under a leaking elbow pipe of a bathroom sink.
Gladys held out a florist’s box with its lid removed to reveal maybe a dozen lopped-off braids of hair tied with satin ribbons.
“Oh please,” Gladys said, “please tell me we can toss this.”
Gladys gave it a shake, and Emma drew her legs further up under her broom skirt.
“Oh, Bug, we have to keep everything.” Emma squinted up at Gladys through her glasses.
In 1953, when Emma worked at the Meeker’s factory, stitching leather handbags and belts, she had a habit of calling every girl there, as they stood in the back alley sharing mayonnaise sandwiches or menthol cigarettes or lipstick, “June Bug” because she couldn’t remember names. They came and went, wearing the same kerchiefs and skirts and close-lipped grins. She couldn’t be expected to keep track. And Gladys was among them. She was “June Bug” until Gladys stayed on and Emma began to notice how Gladys wore canvas sneakers half-on and squashed heeled, dyed her hair the color of a penny, knew everybody’s names, first and last, always, and left the taste of orange soda on her cigarette filters. Then she was just “Bug.”
“Everything stays,” Emma said. “You know that.”
Everything. Gladys’s jaw tightened. Her ears itched. She fit the lid back onto the box.
Emma had hoped to rearrange enough of Grandma Sumner’s belongings to carve out adequate space for themselves in one of the bedrooms, restore a bathroom, clear the kitchen. That was it. That was all the space Emma felt she and Gladys would need. The rest had to be preserved as it had always been. She flipped a page, wafting the twang of mildew.
Gladys waved a hand. “How can you stand the smell?”
“By the time I made it three chapters in I hardly noticed anymore.”
Emma once slept for three-and-a-half hours on an airport bench in Heathrow when their flight home was delayed. She once lifted a submerged cast-iron pan from the shale of a river to show Gladys the leaches clinging to it—“isn’t this just the most fascinating thing?”—and then flung it downstream. She could eat a truck-stop kolache without getting sick, bathe in water colored from the rust in the pipes, shave all of her hair off with pet clippers, wash her arms and neck in a rest-stop sink, buff a fruit-stand peach against her sleeve and eat it right then. She could curl around Gladys on a camper mattress on a back porch, her hip aching against the thin foam, her spine slumped out of a natural shape, the moth-ball smell of the mattress buttons under a sheet stinging her nose, and be perfectly content. Always content. Gladys, though, groaned and lowered herself to sit beside the boxed museum catalogues. She smelled the mildew of the page wavering between Emma’s fingers, and then she smelled something else entirely, something pressing through the screens in a gust. The eaves popped. Dirt and weeds and the odd metallic tinge of something like fertilizer or pencil shavings, that’s what she smelled. All at once. Amplified. As if she’d dumped a cluster of mother-in-law tongues from a clay pot and stuck her whole head inside. The eaves popped. Her ears popped. The sky past the sweet gum trees out back went black. And then, sirens.
* * *
During the whole of Emma’s tenure as Sumner House caretaker, which had up until now mostly consisted of walking the perimeter maybe once a week when they were around to make sure nobody had busted a window and slipped in, she had never been down in the basement. Or maybe she had as a kid and forgotten. She couldn’t be sure, but as she and Gladys descended the wooden steps one at a time with their hands on the railing and pulled the chain for the bulb at the bottom, she studied the rows of metal bunk beds and steamer trunks with fresh surprise. She’d expected to find it crammed like every other room in the house. She and Gladys stood on the rubber mat of the landing while the tornado siren wailed somewhere above the wooden beams of the basement ceiling.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Gladys rested her fingertips in the tiny “V” of her parted blouse collars.
“What do you think is in those trunks?” Emma wondered. There was one at the foot of each set of bunks.
“Dead bodies,” Gladys mused.
Emma flipped the clasps of the nearest trunk to have a look. Canned goods. Maxi pads. Playing cards. Canteens. A kerosene lamp and a box of matches. Bandage rolls. A Reader’s Digest from August of 1957. A paddle ball.
“How disappointing.” Gladys crossed her arms.
“Well.” Emma stood straight and let the steamer lid gape. “Is this clean enough for you? We could live down here.”
It had been Emma’s idea to move into Sumner House after thirty-eight years of its being largely uninhabited. They’d spent most of their collective retirement on travel over the years—stateside in an ’82 Ford truck with a camper shell and abroad in hostels meant for young backpackers. Emma would bring her camera. Gladys would bring her collapsible fishing rod. They’d sit on benches in museums with their sketchbooks on their knees and draw approximations of Starry Night or The Three Graces or Song to the Moonbow or Bacchus and Ariadne and pack the catalogue in the folds of Emma’s skirts in the suitcase for the trip home. They’d highlight their paths on outdated maps falling apart at the folds and get lost and hand roll cigarettes and lie on their backs on the lawns of parks at night. In Madrid, Gladys bought a sword she had to drag along the cobblestones, it was so heavy. In Marfa, Emma bought a tiny box full of tiny worry dolls she lost through a hole in her skirt pocket. In Galway, Emma played a toy guitar like a ukulele in the hostel’s kitchen while Gladys sang Kay Starr favorites, no matter the tune, and a bearded kid resembling Jesus checked the package of bread he’d found in the cabinet for mold and made toast for everyone. And a little over a month ago when rent was due in their over-the-garage apartment on Avenue B and Byers, Gladys said they’d have to get jobs and Emma said she had a better idea. “How about no rent at all?” she’d said. So here they were.
“Live . . . down here? In the basement?” Gladys sat on a bottom bunk. The floor overhead creaked and shuddered. “No thank you. It’s halfway to grave level.”
“You know what this reminds me of?” Gladys said. “Remember a few years back? That cult that killed themselves in their bunk beds. All wearing the same white socks and black shoes.”
“We could wear white socks and black shoes,” Emma offered. “We could be the cult of Emma and Bug.”
“There’s a special purgatory for those caught dead in white socks and black shoes. They’re doomed to push empty trays down a Luby’s buffet rail for all eternity.”
Emma rolled her eyes behind her glasses. “Oh, Bug.” The mattress sighed dust as Emma joined Gladys on the bottom bunk, leaned her knees to Gladys’s, and held her hand. She watched the joists and beams as if the warbled striations of wood grain were on the verge of shaping a deep truth. The bulb flickered. She was about to ask how they’d know when it was all over when the crescendo of a growl wiped the syllables out and the room went black. She squeezed Gladys’s hand. Gladys squeezed back. The growl persisted. The door at the top of the basement steps rattled in its doorframe.
When the storm finally went silent, Emma realized she was screaming, her throat going raw. She stopped. Swallowed. “Is that all?” she asked Gladys.
“Yes. Yes, I think that’s all.”
“Did we make it?”
“Looks that way.”
After they were sure they’d made it, Emma stood in the dark. “Come with me,” she said. “Let’s see what’s what up there.”
Hand in hand, Gladys and Emma shuffled across the concrete floor until hitting upon the rubber mat. Gladys’s fingers found the stair rail first, and as they made their careful ascent she’d hoped to throw the door back to find that the whole house had been carried away with everything in it. For all the noise, though, Sumner House remained fairly undisturbed. One window had burst in the front room over the settee, and the sweet gum tree had smashed their porch and pinned the back door shut with the very ends of its toppled branches.
“Grandma always hated the seed balls anyway,” Emma said when she discovered the damage through the kitchen’s back window.
“Oh god,” Gladys stood on tiptoes behind Emma, her hands on Emma’s shoulders, peering past to see for herself. “What about our catalogues?”
“I’m sure they’re under the branches somewhere.”
“They’ll be soaked through!”
Gladys smacked her mouth in the great disappointment of it all and tugged at Emma’s shirt hem for her to follow her to the front of the house and out the door to gauge the damage in the greater neighborhood. It was the lack of sound that hit Gladys first. No electricity humming along the wires strewn with tangled tree limbs down the street. No cars whirring along the asphalt. No birds. Nothing. Gladys said Emma’s name just to see if her voice would register. It did. Without echo. Clean as a dart meeting its target. The houses down Mulberry stood intact as their residents gathered on their stoops blinking at the clearing sky. Emma raised a hand in greeting, and a pot-bellied man in a tracksuit waved back.
“Huh,” Gladys breathed, stepping forward into the yard between twists of chain-link fence and roofing tiles to examine the stumps of oak branches dangling Christmas tinsel. And when she turned a half-circle to examine the side of the house, smattered with mud, her eyes narrowed at the empty sky beyond the houses directly behind theirs. In that direction, every roofline, every church steeple, every treetop, as far as she could see, was gone.
* * *
When Mulberry Street had finally been cleared, the trucks drove through to collect debris, and a church group from Alabama arrived to clean the lawns. It was then that Gladys had the idea of carrying some of Grandma Sumner’s things to throw in the truck, as if they were things that had landed on their property. She kept Emma busy out back supervising a young man who’d volunteered to remove the sweet gum from the porch. And while the chainsaw sputtered to life, Gladys slipped out the old servant’s entrance on the side of the kitchen with the box of braids. Somewhere around her fifth trip to the truck with her arms full of doll parts, Gladys decided that in the unlikely event that Emma noticed anything had gone missing, Gladys would say they must have been looted in the night. So far, they hadn’t actually been looted in the night, even though Gladys would quietly unlock the front door before descending into the basement where they’d been forced to sleep for the last three days. It was cool down there, at least, cooler than the porch had been. And since they were still without electricity, and would be for weeks, Gladys insisted they keep one of the old kerosene lamps lit so she could, as she’d told Emma, sleep without imagining herself in a pine box.
In the back yard, Emma dragged a tree limb to a pile she was making a good distance from the back porch. The young man, in jeans and a grubby t-shirt and work goggles, nosed the chainsaw into the fallen tree. He didn’t listen when Emma told him, her voice straining over the noise of the blades, to be careful not to cut through whatever the tree had fallen on. “I have a very special box under those limbs. A box of very important catalogues, you understand.” And Emma didn’t listen when he told her, over his shoulder, to stop dragging the cut tree limbs away. “I can do that in a bit, ma’am,” he said. The branch sprung against the others after she added it to the pile and checked her palms. They itched from the bark. The tree root had taken a great chunk of ground up with it so the root, on its side, stood six feet high. She walked around it to get to the faucet and rinse her hands.
The man let the chainsaw idle as he said, “Ma’am. You shouldn’t use that water.”
“Oh, it’s just fine.”
“There’s a boil order.”
“A what?” She looked up at him, the man poised on the fallen tree, holding his chainsaw aside and squinting in the goggles.
“You have to boil that water,” he said.
She hadn’t heard about a boil order. In the hours after the tornado, they’d found three radios in the house but no batteries to run them. So she and Gladys had no idea what was happening anywhere beyond maybe the two houses surrounding them in every direction. After she twisted the faucet off and shook her hands dry, she walked to the front. And there was Gladys, in her home-sewn seersucker pants and blouse with its Peter Pan collar, emptying a pillowcase into the truck, shaking its clunky contents loose with more vigor once she saw Emma plodding through the mess of the front lawn.
Emma shielded her eyes from the sun with her damp hand. “That boy out back says there’s a boil order and we’re not to use the water right out of the faucets,” Emma said.
Gladys draped the empty pillowcase over her arm. “Well,” Gladys said, “go on back there and find out what else we’re not supposed to be doing.” She wasn’t sure how much longer the truck would be parked at the curb. The volunteers from the church were down to untangling the last of the debris from the boxwoods under the front windows. “Go on.”
“Go get the car, Bug.”
“I need to see what’s going on out there.”
Emma pressed her fists to her hips. She stared at Gladys. Gladys stared back. Emma shifted her glasses up the bridge of her nose. The sun strengthened and faded. Then Gladys sighed and said, “I’ll get the keys,” as she walked toward the detached garage.
Gladys drove slowly in the Corolla toward the flat expanse of the tornado’s imprint while Emma leaned close to the windshield looking for street signs. They’d been ripped away. Pole and all. Many of the roads were closed, marked with orange sawhorse barriers. Gladys lost track of the turns they’d made. Emma rifled through the glove box for a map as if by magic it could help them navigate the streets they’d both known for their entire lives, transformed into indistinct mud-splattered paths between great mounds of debris and the black, leafless stumps of trees. Block after block. Mangled bicycles, plywood, dish shards, insulation, winter jackets, lamp stands, bricks, sheetrock, lawn chairs, swing sets. Gladys could feel her pulse in her ears.
“What do you think happened to everyone?” Emma wondered.
And once they finally made their way back home, the car lurching on a flat tire studded with glass, they found the Alabama volunteers, who’d moved on a few houses down from theirs, and asked. One hundred and sixty-one dead, was the answer. Thousands displaced. Some had camped out in the shelters set up at the university. The hospital was gone along with three schools and the grocery store. There was the boil order, a contaminated soil warning, a sunset curfew.
“Gracious,” Gladys said with her thumb tracing the curve of her collar.
“It was a record-breaker,” a woman in overalls and hiking boots replied.
What a cosmic joke, Gladys thought, how this town had become something like the cluttered Sumner House turned inside out. They shook the woman’s gloved hand and pivoted again toward home. When they reached the back porch, they found the sweet gum tree, with the exception of the root ball and the circle of ground it had ripped out of place, dismantled and piled to the side along with the corrugated tin that had been the porch roof and its two-by-fours and the screens and the mattress. The deck remained, though, and on the deck the soggy box sat slumped, its red-marker letters bleeding into illegibility. Alongside the box, the museum catalogues had been lined up to dry in the sun.
* * *
Emma dragged a ladder-back chair and a footstool to the front lawn to read her copy of Wuthering Heights in the shadow of her wide-brimmed hat. She could smell the mildew now. Everything smelled like mildew. Mildew and dirt. It clung to her fingers. Her skirt draped over her straight legs crossed at the ankles. She wasn’t speaking to Gladys, who had staked out her own reading spot out back on a blanket in the crater where the tree’s root ball used to be. Emma liked this view from the house, anyway, this view from which everything looked pretty much the same as it always had. It was Gladys who had the view of the empty horizon clouded with the dust of a dozen bulldozers two weeks after the tornado. And it was the bulldozers that had prompted the fight.
“That’s how it’s done,” Gladys had said, standing beside Emma, peering through a back window of a second floor room crowded with rolling clothing racks and papasan cushions and doors off their hinges as a crawler excavator scraped up debris and conveyed it to the dumping bed of a truck. “You salvage the best and sweep away everything else.”
“What do you mean, ‘that’s how it’s done’?”
“I mean that’s what we should do,” Gladys had raised her hand to the crammed-together contents of the room they’d just finished forging a path wider than their hips through, “with all this shit.”
They’d spent days repackaging and rearranging in the stale heat of the house, still without air-conditioning, Gladys with her blouse soaked through with sweat, Emma pausing to kneed the aches out of her hands, yet Gladys could never see any real progress, as if everything were made of mercury and slipped right back into place. And they were still sleeping in the basement, staring up at the beams bearded with cobwebs, the kerosene lamp making hunching funhouse shadows of the bunks on the walls. There’d even been some talk on Emma’s part of taking in a few people who’d been displaced, and Gladys had to explain they barely had room for the two of them with all the clutter. “It has to go,” Gladys had demanded.
“Don’t talk like that,” Emma had warned as she retreated from the window. “Everything stays.”
It was then Gladys told her how she’d already gotten rid of a good deal of junk when the trucks were here and Emma hadn’t even missed it. “You see?” Gladys had said. “Once it’s all gone you won’t even remember what was here to begin with.”
And that was the last word Emma had uttered to Gladys.
She lifted her chin to feel the breeze down her neck. Not speaking to Gladys was sort of like fasting, she thought. She felt light, felt her ribs squeeze in on the occasional pangs of absence. On a picnic blanket in back, Gladys lay with a March 1984 National Geographic magazine closed on her chest. She decided she wasn’t going to work on the house anymore. It was futile. She was going to lie right here and get a sunburn and blame Emma. The beeping of dump trucks and machines in reverse droned in the distance. Then every air-conditioner unit on Mulberry began to whir at once. She let the magazine slide off of her chest as she hurried in to check the light switches. In the kitchen, she tried the small fixture over the sink, and its filaments sizzled to life. She stood over a floor vent and watched her pant hems stir.
Emma on the front lawn hadn’t heard the power surge anew through the lines. She was marking her place in the novel with a crease when she saw a small white dog limping down the street. A poodle mix, she thought, or a bichon frisé. She sat the book on the woven wicker seat and walked slowly to the curb to greet her. Kneeling, she opened her hand, and the dog padded over to her, smelling her fingertips. Dirt and bits of splinter matted her curled fur. No collar. Emma tried to pick the splinters loose as she asked her questions. “What’s your name pretty girl? Where’s your home?” The dog’s fur hung from ribs. “Oh,” Emma said when she picked the dog up and fitted her back against her curled arm, “you don’t weight more than a potato.” Nicks marked the pads of the dog’s feet, and a sliver of bright blue plastic had wedged itself between the toes of her left paw. Emma pulled the sliver free. “There, there.”
When she brought the dog in to the kitchen sink, she found Gladys standing over the vents with her eyes closed and the old avocado-colored Frigidaire humming and the light over the sink blaring. She started to tell Gladys about the dog and then stopped herself. Instead, she lowered the dog in the white porcelain dip of the sink and turned the faucet on. Rivulets of muddy water ran off her paws and down the slotted drain. Gladys opened her eyes at the sound of a whimpering dog, at the smell of wet fur.
“Is this my replacement?” she wanted to know.
Emma didn’t answer. She didn’t answer when Gladys asked if the dog seemed to belong to someone. She didn’t answer when Gladys asked where they could find food for her and how long she would stay. She didn’t answer that evening when Gladys asked if she could move two bunks down because the dog smelled like a dried-out sewage pipe. As long as Emma wasn’t going to interrupt her, Gladys decided to tell her about the one dog she’d ever owned, a chocolate-colored Chihuahua named Mr. Pete who wore a vest and ate shoe laces and peed down the air vents whenever he was scolded and raised his front paws together when anyone said “pray for mercy” and executed a flip when her father’s finger mimed a pulled trigger. “I bet you’re wondering whatever happened to Mr. Pete, and I’m not going to tell you until you ask.” Gladys folded her arms and waited.
They’d fought before, of course. Over how to pronounce “hegemony,” over Emma infesting their room in Matalascañas with sand fleas after walking into the Mediterranean fully clothed in the middle of the night and leaving her skirt, caked in wet sand, on the foot of their bed, after Gladys backed their camper truck into a fast-food dumpster. Small things, really. And their fights always ended quickly because Gladys had a way of tricking Emma into forgetting they were ever fighting at all. Now Gladys folded her arms and waited, and Emma stroked the dog curled at her side until she fell asleep.
The next day, Emma let the dog, who she’d started to call Potato, explore Sumner House as she followed her around. Potato could needle her way into places Emma couldn’t manage. So she knelt down and craned her neck to check on her, under an iron bed or a vanity seat, between armoires, between stacks of magazines. Potato would pause in her sniffing to look at Emma and then dart off again, making the dust motes whirl. And she remembered something, being in this room with its window seat, slanted ceilings, and sagging wallpaper with a pattern of tiny bachelor’s buttons. Maybe she was six or seven. She was sitting on the braided rag rug the dog had just plucked his toenails from as he ran off. It had been made of men’s ties, she knew. Her mother explained it once, how they’d cut the ties in strips and sewn the strips and coiled and stitched it into place as they went. Where the ties had come from, she had no idea. Where did any of this stuff ever come from? But she’d been sitting there, age six or so, when she’d found a matryoshka doll under the bed. She took it apart, doll after doll, nested together, and there should have been a tiny doll in the middle that didn’t open at all, a doll that was the end of the dolls, but there wasn’t. Just a gasp of the rims of the last doll scraping apart and then nothing at all. There was a knocking across the wall at the same time. Probably just the knocking of water being yanked along the old pipes. But somehow she’d convinced her young self that the ghost of her grandfather had been the knot in the middle of the doll and that she’d just released him. She looked under the bed now, and Potato looked back. Where did that matryoshka doll go, she wondered? When she didn’t find it—in the dresser drawers, in the armoire, in the closet, under the bed, in the stack of hat boxes, in the sea grass baskets—she decided Gladys must have tossed it in the dump truck.
“Gladys!” She struggled to push herself to her feet and hurried room to room, looking for Gladys, the dog at her heels. “Gladys!”
She followed the voice to the back stairwell where Gladys was directing a wooden magazine stand in a kind of controlled fall to the first floor. She and the stand were almost to the bottom, and she started to explain to Emma how she’d planned to move as much as she could stuff into the basement so they could at least sleep upstairs. Emma followed her down, screaming like she’d screamed at the height of the tornado, words surfacing and losing shape. Gladys moved the magazine table into the kitchen where the back stairwell deposited them, moved it out of Emma’s way, Gladys’s mouth agape, and Emma followed, screaming about the dump truck, the matryoshka dolls, the ghost of her grandfather. Emma grabbed one of the Millefluers china bowls on the wooden chopping block and threw it at the wall where it shattered like a splash of water. It was the noise that stopped her, red-cheeked and breathing heavy, the dog hiding under skirt hem.
“My goodness,” Emma whispered.
“My goodness.” Gladys sat on the magazine stand and wiped her brow with the sash of her collar that gathered to make a bow.
Even above the whir of the air-conditioner cycling on again, they could hear the bulldozers in the distance, hear the clang and rattle of the machinery, hear the droning beeps. It’d be this way for months on end, the dust coloring the hoods of cars and the rims of windows for miles. Potato stretched flat on her belly in the shadow of Emma’s skirt so her paws and nose protruded out in the open.
Emma pressed her cool palms to her cheek. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
Then after a long pause, Gladys cleared her throat. “I bet I could sew that dog a little vest, you know,” Gladys said. “There’s a box of remnants in the downstairs linen closet. I bet she’d like a vest.”
Emma swallowed. “I bet she would,” she said.
“What color, do you think?”
“What?” Emma’s palms grew hot against her face.
“What color for the vest?”
“I’ll have to think about it, Bug,” Emma said, lowering her hands.
Gladys stood to move the magazine stand toward the basement door.
Emma picked up the dish shards and slivers and listened to them crack one against the other as she dropped them in the kitchen trash.
Cynthia Hawkins teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio and serves as Editor of Arts and Culture at the literary site, The Nervous Breakdown. Her work has appeared in publications such as ESPN the Magazine, Passages North, New World Writing, The Good Men Project, and the anthology, The Way We Sleep.