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]

1984 from Julia’s Perspective

Baker’s Pick
Mari Carlson

Photo Credit: smilla4/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I willed myself to wake up before our neighbor, to pluck a few blossoms for Winston on our last day together. I usually heard our neighbor, a buxom older lady, start singing at dawn, as she carried the laundry to the communal wash, so I got up in the dark. Like bells shining in moonlight, it wasn’t difficult to find the flowers in her garden. I crept back inside, filled the hollow stem of an upturned wine goblet with water and stuck the sprig of lilies of the valley in it. We didn’t have a vase. The repurposed container was made of ceramic, glazed blue. Its glassy color mixed with the flowers’ fragrance covered up the rat presence in our little attic hiding hole.

I first saw Winston outside the Ministry of Love a few years prior. We were all staring at a telescreen. His eyes weren’t fixed on what was in front of him but beyond, to something most people couldn’t see. It wasn’t inattention, for which he would have been reprimanded; it was indifference, a nonchalance that made him seem not of this world. Drawn to those far reaching eyes, I began to follow him.

Winston was still asleep when I placed the vase on the table and climbed back into bed. When he turned over, his varicose ulcer peeked out from under the sheet. I knew that ulcer grieved him. It hurt. It was unsightly, which had never bothered him before we started spending more time together, naked. To me, it was a sign of how much he’d lived through. I wanted to live through him, to mature in his accumulated pain. I nestled back into the curve he left me.

Winston went to the community center two or three times a week after work, to drink gin and play chess. I sewed sashes for the Anti-Sex League and painted posters for our marches. From the corner of my eye, I caught him tracing the edge of his glass as if it were the bare shoulder of a lover. He pulled on his cigarette tenderly, making each drag count. I wanted those fingers, those lips. I wanted to count. Chess did not count to him; it merely passed the time. His attention was elsewhere. When he wasn’t moving pieces on the chess board, he held something in his pocket. His hand didn’t move, just lingered on something more important than pawns and kings. Whatever it was grounded him, held him fast between then and this eternal now.

He woke up sniffing my hair. He sought out my breasts and stretched out upon me. We made love and laid in our juices. Today, the rats would speak to us from behind the painting in the living room. Winston didn’t know it, but I did. Ever since he’d gotten that book from O’Brien, I knew he was coming for us. I’d been with men in the Inner Party, like O’Brien. They didn’t see me because I didn’t stand out. I blended in. I was a model Party girl, their Party girl, to do with as they pleased. I used them for the privileges, for pleasure, just like they used me. We were one and the same.

They sniffed out singularity like sharks after blood. The Party’s only purpose was to keep itself intact, a single entity with no room for diversion or innovation or idiosyncrasy of any kind. I let O’Brien give Winston that book as bait, the telltale sign of an individual. To fight either of them would have been sudden death. All I wanted was a little more time, which I bought with betrayal on all sides.

One evening at the community center, I sat on the floor, doodling on the edge of a placard, pretending to come up with a new slogan or a new design. Hate Week was coming up. We girls were busy preparing to honor Big Brother and to celebrate The Party’s many victories. I wasn’t doodling or designing. I was writing a note and planning how to get it in Winston’s hands. If I could just make myself an object for him, I would become real. He would notice me then. I put my foot on the corner of the paper when I stood up, twisting the edge off. The missing corner became trash, a mistake. I picked it up and bunched it in my hand. I pretended to throw it away, but instead, I stuffed it in my pocket. A link to Winston, a first step into his attention. A thing we already had in common.

For weeks, the note burned in my skirt. During that time I went on community hikes with the other girls. I led a few of us down paths toward a creek or into a meadow in search of mushrooms or deeper into the forest to find the source of a bird song. All for Winston, to determine a path to safety for us. I was looking through nature to find a sanctuary, a haven for two lovers.

I made up coffee, real coffee I got on the black market. Winston sat up at the smell. He put his arm behind his head and waited for me to bring it to him. Once, in bed, he said to me, “We’re dead.” I said, “No.” My legs entwined with his said the rest. No, we’re not dead, yet. We’re making a shape together that can never be unmade. We’re making ourselves into a threat. We’ll never get away with it. He could read all he wanted about the Brotherhood in that book from O’Brien, but it won’t bring back the past nor bring about a revolution. O’Brien told us not to hope for that in our lifetimes. I don’t have time for hope. I make time for experiences that stick, the meat on my bones. We sipped our coffee, then, as we did now, and waited to be found out.

Before Hate Week, I caught sight of him on the street. I fell, knowing he’d come to me. He knelt down beside me. I smelled his sour breath. One arm lifted me off the ground and the other cradled my head. I nearly forgot my task: to put the note in his pocket. To transfer my love to him.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. I can walk, thank you.” Not to look, not to make contact, that is how to engage. It was my only defense, to look as though I didn’t care, when he occupied all my thoughts and feelings. Later, he found me in the cafeteria. He sat down across from me. Between spoonfuls of rotten stew, I whispered to him the route to a meeting place in the woods. And there it began. The beginning and the end.

We met as often as we could, every couple weeks, for a few years. Building a life apart from the dead one we waded through. The closer we got, the greater the risk, the more real our love became, sculpted from impossibility. He wanted to make a new life, to bring impossibility into reality. He became part of “the resistance,” the Brotherhood.
As Winston read aloud from the book about the Brotherhood O’Brien gave him, I feigned interest. Instead, I recorded the grid of veins on his legs, the speed of his pulse, the texture of his skin. I memorized him for when we were captured, eating him up so I could still taste him afterwards.

While I set our coffee cups in the sink, a flock of birds burst from the trees and scattered over the neighborhood, like an omen. In their wake, a nasty breeze wafted through the window. The flowers could not scatter the stink of treachery. It was time. A voice came from behind the painting, beckoning us. It was then I saw the tracks I’d left our pursuers: the flower. Unlike my black market lipstick, the joy I couldn’t wipe off my face. The calm in my gait that says I’m okay. Love had become me; I couldn’t hide it any longer. My secret weapon revealed.

Winston’s ideas didn’t betray us. We did. The threat of our love was not razor sharp, like cutting up a two-dimensional world through which we drew out thin lines of existence. No, we stood out in 3D, as round and beautiful as the coral paperweight Winston kept in his pocket. I’d led them to us.

I packed as they came up the stairs. I scanned the room, mouthing the name of every object, stuffing things into my mind like glue in a crack. They can take me, but they cannot take what I carry inside, what keeps me whole. I made the images hard, no sepiaed nostalgia. The edge of the bed, the wart on the toe, the constellation of capillaries on Winston’s calf, my name in his mouth, an ant on the windowsill, the rats in the walls that betrayed us.

We may be dead, but I’m the one who killed us. There’s life in that truth. I may never see him again. I may be tortured to the point of betraying him. I may come to forget the past. That doesn’t change the fact that it existed, that we rendered it. You and I together, Winston, memories that live in the folds of our brain, synapses like a map to buried treasure.

pencilAt the start of the lockdown, Mari Carlson, her husband and son read 1984 out loud to each other over dinner every night for weeks. COVID’s extraordinary circumstances eerily paralleled the novel. She teaches and performs violin, writes book reviews and makes art (which sometimes sells on Etsy!). She divides her time between Eau Claire, WI and Washington, DC. Her short story, “Vandal,” was published last year in The Main Street Rag. Email: mlcarlson1[at]