The Flood

Mari Carlson

Photo Credit: Jo Zimny Photos/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

On May 5, 2021, while I was doing laundry, the basement toilet gushed a nasty torrent that sent me panicking for cover in the pantry. This corner closet, built like a bunker or a dark room, sealed out moisture and light. We used it as storage.

The water inching up against the pantry door, I called a friend.

Oh, Merrian, she said, this is just what you need with all you’re going through.

All I was going through was that, through the pandemic, my husband flitted manically from job to job, hoping each was the one. In this position or that one he’d finally prove he could do well in the world, or so he thought. He fell deeper and deeper into despair as none of them worked out. Finally, he reapplied to drive city bus again, a job he’d left a few months prior, in order to accept a better offer, which turned out worse than driving bus. He came home on May 4, his first day back behind the wheel, and announced he wanted to smash his head in and be done. The string of jobs, we concluded, was the tip of the iceberg to some deeper trouble.

Heck of an accident. Hang in there, kiddo, my dad said when I called him.

My mom: Oh, honey.

I called my husband between bus routes. It’s my fault, he apologized. I should do better at home maintenance.

I called my son to warn him not to come downstairs when he got home. Geez mom, are you okay?

My family and friends’ little speech bubbles of concern felt like pats on my head. I felt inert, an innocent victim of household chaos like the pair of sunglasses missing one lens, a bike light sans battery, or an empty bottle of sunscreen, all deposited on the windowsill inside the back door. Forgotten ornaments of ordinary life. We toss these things like perfunctory threshold kisses, not thrown away exactly, but not cherished, either. Like them, I was neither here nor there, in pantry purgatory.

Underneath a holey wool mitten was a key that had been on the back door windowsill since we moved in. The realtor who sold us the house handed the key to me when he and I were touring the kitchen and my husband was checking out the stained glass windows in the living room.

Now, this, he explained, is the key to the basement pantry room. Used to be the canning room. Driest room in the house, even if it is in the basement. People used to keep their valuables in there. Wouldn’t never think of it, but they did.

He was a stocky man, not much taller than me. From his shaved head, grey stubble peeked out of perspiration droplets. I could see the twinkle from his younger years in his crystal blue eyes, laughter chiseled into their edges. But his red nose told me he’d had lots to cry at, too. He looked at me as he placed the key in my palm. Like I was already the homeowner. Like he was bestowing it to me. His thick fingers lingered a moment on my skin. He winked at me and turned around to address my husband.

I never saw it, but people told me the realtor built a stone staircase in the middle of his backyard. I figured it was a rock ‘n’ roll stairway-to-heaven symbol, or maybe just an artistic experiment. I saw him around town in a tie-dye T-shirt and once in a leather kilt and bare feet. He loped when he walked, took his time. He always waved at me. I would wave back and smile.

The door creaked against the weight of the rising water. I ran my finger along the pantry shelves. Not a lick of dust. I leafed through boxes of my old journals and sketchbooks. I made art every day when I was young. I got through freshman orientation at college hunched over in my folding chair, drawing the peppy resident assistants and the bored crowd around me. I scratched and shaded in agitated attention. I took in the rules and expectations, as well as the hype about community and scholastic achievement, through my pencil.

One evening, during his second pandemic job, my husband lamented all the jobs he’d ever held. He sobbed the regret blues. So long ago, I’d fallen in love with his blues, my own private concerts. Now, I dismissed myself after an hour, when our tears had dried, the silences longer than his verses.

I have to practice, I said. I played violin until I heard him climb into the tub. Then I headed to the basement with a box. I took a tub of his baseball cards out of the pantry, stuffed it under his workbench, and put my box in its place, wiping down the shelf with a damp cloth.

My phone rang. I was missing a violin lesson. The student was waiting in my studio. Where are you? I’m sick, I lied. Water gurgled on the other side of the door like my fake queasy stomach.

The basement toilet sits between the washer and a cabinet where I keep cat supplies and extra toilet paper. The litter box is in front of the cabinet. When I use this toilet, I add an extra wad of tissue to my dump. Then I scoop the cat poop in and flush.

Sometimes, over these years, even before the hazy pandemic months, when I’ve had my fill of my husband’s woes, I keep listening. I resist his words like sticking my hand out the car window on the highway, leaning into the gale force. I keep sitting there, letting his cyclone of sentiment gush around me. I’m the eye of his storm. The center who holds. I must hold. Even when I feel broken and vacant and hardened, I have remained beside him, listening.

And not listening. A tune rumbles through my brainwaves. I strategize how to get my youngest student to hold his violin up tall. I stare at my husband’s stray eyebrow hairs and paint a portrait of him. In my imagination, he’s surrounded by gears and levers, boiler pipes, and railroad tracks. The sinews of his forearms taut with exertion, he wields tools that belong to none of these trades.

The realtor warned us the toilet was old.

I might get rid of it, he said. Almost as bad as an outhouse. He looked at me, waiting. Would I get rid of it? he seemed to ask. Or was I old-fashioned and unsanitary enough to use the rusty relic? He tested my allegiance to the house with his stare. Of all the houses we’d seen, I liked this one the best. Sturdy and small, it seemed up to the task of our nomadic family.

Let us think about it, but we’re leaning toward buying, I said, without consulting my husband. I like the toilet, I added. My husband will appreciate it when he works down there. His man cave.

It’ll do you well, ma’am, he said.

The pantry became an echo chamber, all outside sound blocked. I leafed through old quartet music I hadn’t looked at since before the pandemic. I could hear the puns our cellist made and the first violinist’s witty responses. Perdendosi, or, dying away, we were called. The other three musicians were older than me, retired and playing just for fun. I followed their wabi-sabi bow strokes into joy. We launched those dots soaring off the page.

A few days before he started driving again, my husband and I had sex. It had been a while. He fell asleep afterwards. I got up, naked and sticky, and started to sweep. From the top of the house to the bottom, I went at it ferociously. I attracted dust like our cats roll in dirt. I bathed in the grime I stirred into the air. Come, you mess, and find your home. I swept it all into the basement floor drain.

His first day back, my husband sat in the bus driver’s seat for twelve hours, going nowhere. He drove in circles around town, sinking into his seat, stuck in an endless loop. He had five passengers all day. He was as empty as the bus, lonely on the inside and out, he said.

In my pantry ark, I sat on a stool I’d dragged in. How long had it been since I’d just sat? I was tired and hungry and relieved. My papers and mementos and books, in their layered piles, seemed to float. Released. The shelves swayed to the tide rising outside the door. Maybe I was starting to hallucinate. I drifted through time, my past all around me, flying me forward. My eyes, full of darkness, sensed forms and shapes keeping me company. While my husband found the bus a dead end, I found all those things, those memories, those emotions I set aside in order to hold steady. Now, they held me up. I wasn’t sinking in the pantry; from my stool I rode a massive wave. Yeehaw! I groped around, found a pencil, and I wrote on the cement wall.

On May 5, 2021, a plan I’d been hatching for months came to fruition. I clogged the toilet and the floor drain on purpose, waiting for an explosion. Meanwhile, I replaced my husband’s storage with my own prized possessions in the safest room we have. I was not doing laundry when the toilet erupted, but upstairs in the kitchen. Whatever I was doing, I was alert and ready. As soon as I heard a whoosh, I put on rubber boots I kept handy by the basement stairs. Then I grabbed the pantry key, which I’d set on the windowsill right after the closing of the house sale, and fled down into the flood. I locked myself into the pantry with only a slick of water accompanying me and when I let myself out, I will show you what else I can accomplish.


Mari Carlson teaches and performs violin/voice, writes, and makes art outside of Washington, DC. She spends summers in Minneapolis area with family and friends. Email: mlcarlson1[at]

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