I know how to tell you this now.
The day I went back to Philly was not a real day. It was Feb 29th, and if I’d taken my road trip one year earlier or later, the time would not have existed. This—plus the unchanging drizzle, and the giant sorrowful face of Edgar Allan Poe painted on the side of a building—gave the day its other-worldly feel. I hadn’t been back since 1972. From the start of my search I was lost, but I needed to find out if our house was still there.
Did you hear about the old neighborhood, Jules? That it’s gone? I found out from Daddy, in one of our awkward annual phone conversations. Blocks and blocks of row houses, it turned out, had been built on a sinkhole, and for decades had been subsiding into the ground. The city was forced to demolish them. Daddy had seen a picture on the Internet. “Looks weird,” was all he said. But he knew the church was still there, standing at the rim of the hole, which meant the parsonage, alongside it, might be too. The entire conversation slipped my mind until I started mapping my road trip and saw how easy it would be to swing through Philly. I thought of Independence Hall and cheese-steak sandwiches and realized I had this extra day and decided it might be fun to stop for a night, see a few sights, maybe look for the house.
My plan that morning was to drive up Tenth Street until things started to look familiar. Not the best plan. I didn’t remember the exact address, so I had nothing for the GPS. I hadn’t even glanced at a map. Truthfully, I thought it wouldn’t matter much if I found the house or not, but once I started driving, something got hold of me and I became possessed: I needed to see that house. I needed it to still exist.
After that day, back home in Denver, I researched the whole ordeal. Our old neighborhood is known as the “infamous Logan Triangle.” In the 1920s, one thousand row houses were constructed on that tract of land—35 acres, 17 square blocks—and by the 1960s, when we moved there, the houses had begun to sink. The ground beneath them was unstable landfill—ash and cinder dumped over old creek beds.
Sinkhole—a depression in the land surface, especially in limestone, where a stream flows underground into a passage or cave; a sunken area where waste collects.
So I drove up Tenth Street, the city seeming familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Tenth was narrow and slow, full of potholes and parked cars. I turned off and managed to find Broad Street, where immediately I was stuck behind a SEPTA bus. Remember that? Whenever we drove on Broad Street, we got stuck behind a bus. The grinding of its idle and gritty stench triggered such a strong memory: 1969—us in our Delta 88, Daddy at the wheel, Momma on the bench seat beside him, you and I in back, all our windows cranked down on a roasting August day, once again stuck behind a SEPTA bus. You, sitting straight-backed beside me, announcing, “These fumes are noxious,” pleased with yourself for using one of your junior high words. I pretended to gag and clutched my throat and hung my tongue out like I was dying, and serenely you reported, “Momma, Annette is being hyperbolic.” You—the detached intellectual, Miss Julie Coolly, all your feelings carefully combed through and knotted up behind your angel’s face. You were a stoic, but I knew that move to Philly was rough on you, your best friend ever left behind in North Carolina. It should’ve been easier for me, being only seven. But we were both so shy and horribly skinny and lost in that wretched cavernous school, and neither of our parents was inclined to acknowledge problems. Momma had her cheerful, clever sayings to dismiss us: Your new school is full of friends—you just haven’t met them yet! She had no time for us, “busy-busy” unpacking boxes and putting things in cupboards and on shelves and fretting over the dust and the new church ladies she’d have to meet.
In North Carolina, she was not so frantic. On sultry afternoons she floated by in wispy floral dresses, hems dancing at her knees. You remember those dresses—she only had the one Simplicity pattern, so they were all identical: sleeveless, neckline round, bodice fitted, skirt flaring. She tended toward lavenders and watery pinks, cotton blends printed with large-petaled orchids, daisies, lilies—always flowers, like her: Rose. Our mother, a Rose. She never knew how beautiful she was, like one of those busty 1950s bombshells with short platinum hair curving around her full face, her tiny nose upturned. I so envied Momma’s nose. How did we get stuck with Daddy’s honker?
The move to Philly changed her, or maybe it was me. Suddenly I noticed how captured she was by her little routines, and I hated it—the way she had to leap up after dinner and clear the table and get all the dishes washed right away, while Daddy lounged watching Cronkite on the black-and-white portable; the way she sat in the passenger seat with nothing to say and nothing to do but glance pleasantly at each of us in turn with her drawn-on smile. It was 1969, but I was too young to know about Betty Friedan and the smile boycott or the other intricacies of feminism; I was bothered in a wordless way. I remember one day Momma went marching around the house with her hands on her hips proclaiming, in her shaky-determined voice, “I think Women’s Lib is kinda dumb!” She didn’t see the point of it, she said. Being a wife and mother was her dream. Maybe it was, back then—when the church was surrounded by a neighborhood, when Warnock Street overflowed with houses all sharing walls, before their sinking became visible and they required annihilation.
Sinkhole—an area of low-lying, poorly drained land in which water collects; a cesspool; a place considered to be wicked and corrupt.
In the early 1980s, the city of Philadelphia slowly began relocating the residents of the Logan Triangle and razing their houses. It took a gas line explosion in 1986 to accelerate the process. By then you were married with babies and living in Wisconsin, and I’d moved to Denver for grad school. Neither of us was thinking of our old home. By 2000, the neighborhood was gone—everything but the church, and possibly the parsonage.
Up Broad Street I crept, wipers laboring across my windshield. I passed stores and office buildings and wondered if I recognized them. I was sure I’d know the church if I came upon it; of course, I’d know our house. It’s been so vivid in my memory all these years; I’ve wondered if I was recalling it accurately or inventing its grandeur. In my mind it towers, rising up three stories; yet it’s narrow, a splinter between the monstrous church and the modest row houses on the other side. Made of stone in gothic grays and browns, it is somber, stately, the bay windows in front like a thrust-out chest, making the house seem to stand extra-erect. Inside, the ceilings yawn above us. The walls are shady-white; hardwood floors shimmer. The place is all echoes and shadows and rattling doorknobs, with closets everywhere, big as small rooms. Paneled mahogany doors slide out of door frames. The front staircase is predictably majestic, with a right-angle turn and a banister to slide down.
But remember that back staircase? It was creepy: a vertical tunnel behind a narrow door, dark and menacingly steep, connecting the kitchen to the smaller rooms on the second floor. We wondered if Church of Christ ministers in the olden days had money enough for servants. And the front door was on the side of the house, not like the main entrances on wide porches we knew in Carolina, but concealed and sneaky. Stone steps ran up the side and down again in back, so the minister and his family could enter the church through the rear. The house was so close to the church, Sunday mornings we walked in single file. The front yard, small and sloped, was like the yards on the rest of the block, blurring together in a sepia stripe along the fronts of the row houses.
You remember my bedroom—the front room on the third floor. Instead of bay windows, it had a balcony, and carved into the stone of its wall was the fierce face of a lion. Our first summer there, you and I stood together on that narrow balcony and pretended to give speeches. “LAAA-deez and GENNN-tulmun!” we boomed in British accents. Then, higher pitched: “LAAAA-deez and GENNNN-tulmun!” Then, in a German accent, “LAAAA-deeee-s oont GEND-ulmun!” But we couldn’t think of anything else to say. We were two bloviating world leaders—two old men with monocles—with nothing to say. So we cleared our throats and continued with, “Blah blah BLAH blah BLAH blah” and collapsed in laughter.
You and I laughed so hard, so often, we had a term for it: the giggledy wumps, that kind of uncontrollable laughing that makes a person fold up and spasm and emit no sound, her chest seized by staccato breaths and joy. Afterward, our jaws would ache. Remember the time we went running up to the third floor with Jell-O in Momma’s good dessert bowls? Those bowls were so shallow and slippery, our red scoops whooshed around the perimeters, at risk any moment of flying into the air. We were laughing from the start, running side by side, watching our wobbly blobs in their mad whirl. You kept steady, holding tight, ever vigilant. I was the reckless one, jogging faster, flapping my elbows out. Truth is, I wanted that Jell-O to soar through the air—I wanted the thrill of seeing it happen. And when it did, my lump of Jell-O smacked against the wall and plopped onto the steps like an unconscious jellyfish, and then—giggledy wumps.
Logan Triangle is not, in fact, a triangle. It’s a five-sided shape in a larger region called Logan in upper North Philadelphia, named for its original owner, who was secretary to William Penn. The land was developed on top of Wingohocking Creek, a large tributary diverted into a pipe, and the creek bed was filled with cinder and ash and other substances unsuitable for house foundations. Of course, this was invisible to us at the time.
I continued up Broad in the frigid drizzle and thought about our first winter in Philly—such a shock after North Carolina. The cast-iron radiators in our rooms would tick and rattle and knock and clank and heave and hiss and scream until finally they grew lukewarm. The third floor was too cold in winter and too hot in summer, but I loved that we had it to ourselves, even though our rooms were at opposite ends of that long corridor. I used to think of the hallway between us as a stretched rubber band that could pop and zoom me in close to you. Of course, you needed your space—you were twelve, and I was so annoying. I kept singing that Bobby Sherman song at you, “Julie Julie do ya truly LOVE me?” Once, you replied, “No,” then instantly looked sorry. You were extraordinarily kind to me, and I wanted to be with you all the time. You were so complete, elegant, quiet and composed, the cool musician, girl mathematician. You were the pretty one, too, you know. I was all one color—beige hair, beige skin; you were striking contrasts—satin-white face encased in soft black hair, robin’s-egg eyes big as buttons. You were like Agent 99 on Get Smart, not just beautiful but brilliant and unassuming, and you were the only one in the family who seemed to acknowledge me. Where was Momma? Sometimes she’d come up to the third floor to get laundry. But every day she was busy-busy, scrubbing and dusting for whatever ladies’ luncheon she was stuck hosting. She wouldn’t have admitted it then, but she’d begun to hate being a minister’s wife. Increasingly, she imagined what could go wrong: the chicken dry, the centerpiece dusty. Apple slices turning brown. She lay awake at night feeling judged and inadequate. She hated people peering at her as she spoke; she hated them calling her “Rosie.” She told me all this after you left for college—when it was just me and her in that God-awful apartment in Tulsa—when she began to tell all her secrets.
Julie Julie Julie . . . How irritating! For an entire day you insisted everyone call you Sarah. I’m sorry. Even though you were Daddy’s favorite, you always seemed to draw the short straw. Being older, you were expected to accommodate me. You let me have the bigger room with the balcony. Usually you ended up with the smaller piece of cake, the old Barbie whose head popped off. Always you let me go first. I was the squeaky wheel and got the most of Momma’s scarce attention. Remember the night the bat got into your room, and Momma didn’t believe you? At breakfast you reported, with your usual calm, “There was a bat in my room last night.” Momma said it must have been a dream. You cited evidence: the red beady curtain in your doorway clacked as the bat flew out. Still, Momma didn’t believe you, and she didn’t bother to look around. I could tell you were mad, but you held it inside. The next night, when the bat was suddenly flailing around my bedroom ceiling, I shrieked so loud and long that everyone appeared instantly, red-faced from running. Daddy had to chase the thing around with a broom. You stood in my doorway, vindicated, silent.
At some point on Broad Street, nothing looked familiar, and I realized I might not even be going in the right direction. But I would not give up; I was obsessed. If I’d still believed in God, I would have prayed to find that house. Stopped at a red light, I saw a figure looming on the sidewalk—a dark-skinned, emaciated, blank-faced man who just stood getting wet, covered by a black overcoat that nearly touched the tops of his shoes. I buzzed down my passenger window and called out, “Hi!” in a weirdly friendly voice. “Could you tell me which direction is Logan Triangle? Do you know?” His right arm drifted upward, and at the end of his sleeve appeared a knob-jointed bone of a finger, pointing ahead. “Oh, thank goodness!” I said. “Thank you, thank you!” I smiled and nodded, but his face would not respond. The light turned green, and I raced on.
In the first hundred years of its history, Philadelphia was ravaged repeatedly by cholera and typhoid. Tens of thousands perished during the outbreaks. So when scientists in the late 1800s discovered that these diseases were caused by water-borne bacteria, the city began diverting its surface streams into underground pipes. Three-fourths of the streams are now buried. A municipal website reports optimistically: “The sewer system designed a hundred years ago to safeguard the health of Philadelphians is still in use today, and by all accounts will be for many years to come.” Then, however, the tone grows grim: “But encapsulating most of our waterways has come at a price, particularly in the case of the historic watershed of the Wingohocking Creek.” The buried Wingohocking runs not only beneath the infamous Logan Triangle, but also beneath East Germantown, where crowded neighborhoods still stand. Heavy rains can “overwhelm” the sewers, and “subterranean waters” push up with enough force to flood the streets. In 2011, East Germantown flooded so suddenly that a young woman drowned in her car.
Our second summer in Philly, I was in the house when Momma came home from that doctor’s appointment. You were out with your friends, and it was so hot I was on the second-floor sleeping porch, which was supposed to be cooler than the rest of the house, playing by myself. Our Barbies were in the midst of a blistering picnic when I realized Momma had come home. I heard her in the master bedroom at the far end of the hall. I heard her weight squeak onto the mattress. Then I heard nothing. I waited, listened, then pushed myself up onto my feet. Like all row houses, ours had no windows on the sides—only at the back and the front—so despite the brightness of the day, the corridor was dark. I crept along it, my bare feet paddling against the bare floor, my nose filling with dust. I pushed at her bedroom door, and the room was dim, the shades in the bay of windows pulled to shut out the heat, their cloth rings swinging at the ends of their skinny ropes like nooses. But the air still dripped with heat, and she lay face down, wearing only a half-slip. I stood. I’d never seen her so undressed. Her nude back was wide, the skin like pink gelatin and pinched into deep creases where her bra straps had been. I tiptoed toward her. Her face was turned away, and her hair snaked out in short stiff curls, zigzags of white scalp in the spaces between. It occurred to me she might be dead. I don’t know why. It reminded me of when we went swimming at the country club in North Carolina, when she’d slide into the water and let her body roll into a dead man’s float. I’d squat on the coarse concrete lip of the pool to watch her. The back of her cobalt swimsuit would drift, a white tortoise-shell of swim cap visible above it, and I’d think, What if she’s really dead? My chest would harden, I’d stop breathing, I’d stare. What if this time she’s really dead? What would the world be without our Momma? Of course, her face always popped up, but I was thinking this again as I approached the bed: What if this time she’s really dead? I tried to imagine her gone, and rocks piled up in my chest. Then her languid head rose, her moon face turned toward me, her eyes focused on my shoulder; she said nothing. The middle shade shuddered in a flaccid breeze. I stood and watched her face rotate away and her head descend back onto its pillow.
She left it to Daddy to tell us later she’d been diagnosed with MS. Multiple sclerosis, he enunciated carefully, as though we were to remember it for a science test. You were stoic, of course. I burst into tears. With classic Julie composure you asked him, “What does this mean?” He snapped back, “She’ll have to go in a wheelchair. Her life expectancy is shortened.” I caught my breath and made my sobbing stop and stared at the side of his nubby face. He expected her to die—soon. He saw this as something that was happening to him. His wife in a wheelchair—an inconvenience to him. His wife dying young—more inconvenience to him. Who’d get his supper and take care of his children? His wife, his children—to him we were labels, flat characters in the Story of Him. Still, I don’t think I started hating him then.
After that, you began to play with me again. You were thirteen with a life of your own, but we set up our Barbie community in the second-floor guest room, constructing houses out of empty boxes, decorating the walls with miniature Barbie portraits we drew ourselves. Smaller boxes were all we had for furniture—makeshift kitchen tables and sofas. We didn’t have a lot of dolls, either. We had our old Barbie with the short hair like a nappy rug that hugged her head and a crack at the back of her squishy skull, which was why her head kept popping off and rolling around like a lopsided ball. It was awful to have her posed somewhere, in an improvised chair or tilted against the wall, then look over later and see her head was missing. We had a Barbie with long blonde hair, which we took to be me, and one with long dark hair, which we took to be you. Then there was Negro Francie, but Ginger chewed her legs one day and left terrible pockmarks, which, given the whole civil rights movement, made us feel so awful we couldn’t bear to play with her. We had only one Ken, which was a problem: Despite his painted-on hair, he was a far better date than GI Joe or especially Johnny West, the chisel-faced cowboy doll with hard plastic unremovable clothes. Both Johnny West and GI Joe were multiply jointed, with bending elbows and knees, which meant we couldn’t even prop them up against the side of a box. Inevitably they’d collapse into heaps of brown plastic. We’d draw straws to see who got to choose a doll first, then take turns choosing until all were claimed. I suspect you rigged it so I would get the dolls I wanted, which was how you always ended up with the self-decapitating Barbie. But at the time, it was nerve-wracking: Our games involved Barbies going on dates, Barbies getting married, so it was important to get the Ken. But if I used my first pick on Ken, I risked forfeiting the blonde Barbie who was me. Me or him: it wasn’t fair. I was overly bothered by the unfairness of this. Of course, our very last pick was Jane West, the hard-faced companion of Johnny—so ugly and permanently badly dressed, she was surely his sister, never his wife. At best she could be someone’s aunt visiting from one of those weird rectangle states out west.
One evening while we were playing, Momma and Daddy started to fight in the dining room below us. They never fought. But suddenly she was shrieking words with no discernible syllables and stomping her feet. You and I caught each other’s eyes but didn’t speak. The Barbies continued to dress for their dates. Downstairs something smashed, and a moment passed, and the front door slammed. I tugged at a narrow pink sleeve, a loose thread looped around Barbie’s claw-shaped hand. I hunched over and pushed harder at the sleeve, but you went downstairs—you went down into it. Momma was the one who’d left, you told me later, and you sat with Daddy at the kitchen table gluing the legs back on our favorite ceramic horse, thinking you were fixing things.
Houses do not sink gracefully into the ground. They twist and crack. Pillars are wrenched from their front porches; lines that should be straight are bowed. Soffits split, façades crumple. Chunks of house are yanked in wrong directions, and corners pull apart, stone foundations break, wrought-iron railings bend, concrete walkways buckle. Everything looks slightly sloped. Cracks form in the dramatic shape of lightning bolts, and porch roofs look dented. A sinking house descends into a collection of pieces about to fall off.
By noon, I had spent nearly two hours driving around Philadelphia in the rain looking for that damn house. I tried to just give up. I berated myself for not giving up. I hypothesized that my conscience was punishing me for not taking my road trip through Tulsa so I could see Momma. But, Jules, Valley Creek Home is so depressing, despite its cheery helpful staff, and Momma wouldn’t know me, and I can’t stand being in Tulsa. It was awful when you left for college and I was left alone with her. She did nothing but sit in that brown recliner, yet still somehow she was too distracted to listen to me. Once, outside our apartment building, I found an injured mourning dove flopping at the curb, writhing and trying to fly away with its one good wing. My heart broke for it. I wanted to rescue it, but I didn’t know how, so I ran up to tell Momma. “There’s a bird downstairs with a broken wing!” I said in a panic, not knowing what to grab—a paper bag? A plastic bowl? Momma sat in her recliner and filed her nails, gazing off, not even glancing my way. Then, in a bored tone, she said, “Don’t worry. There are plenty of cats in the neighborhood.” I never want to go back to Tulsa. And maybe, I thought, I didn’t need to find this house, either. Maybe I needed to find the nearest restaurant and have a glass of wine or several shots of Bacardi. I think I was about to do it, Jules, when I came to Roosevelt Boulevard, and there in the distance, across the park, was the majestic, foggy outline of the church. I pulled over and stared for a while. I drank in its medieval colors, the spire-laced roof fading into the drizzling sky. Behind it I could see an empty, wild field. But I couldn’t see around the church to where the house would be. I strained. I rolled down my window and got a face full of rain. I drove along the edge of the park, and at the far end found Tenth Street, blockaded. I couldn’t get close enough.
Do you remember how, after the fighting started, I began hiding, even from you? I’d creep into the living room and close the sliding doors. By 1972 there was a lot to shut out: Momma sick, Momma screaming at Daddy, and then, trouble in the church—some congregation members with suspicions organizing to fire Daddy. In our living room were plenty of nooks to tuck myself into. Unseen, I spent hours writing stories in my blank books. At first I wrote about girls going on dates, girls getting married, but soon I began a novel about a ten-year-old orphan named Hope, who moves into an abandoned British castle and befriends a handsome male ghost who loves her. Yes, very silly. But every evening I’d write, and through the closed doors would come the sound of you and Daddy playing your duets: him on the piano, you on the violin. I’d never been invited to join, because, according to Daddy, I didn’t practice my flute enough. I hadn’t wanted a flute; I’d wanted a trumpet. I’d told him that. Later, when I asked for a drum set, he bought me an acoustic guitar. So I didn’t play an instrument. I wrote, and you bowed, and he pounded, and Momma banged around in the kitchen and went to bed early. By then she was sleeping most of the day, and most of the evening, and all night. You and I thought this was a symptom of MS; she’d developed other symptoms: one foot dragged as she walked, she dropped things, she put on weight. She had to get a new Simplicity pattern—one for dresses that hung like sacks, all sewn from blue, patternless fabrics. She’d be asleep by eight every evening, but Daddy would wait until later, until you and I went to bed, before he left the house.
Do you ever think that Caroline—the name, not the woman—reminded Daddy of our happier years in Carolina? He seemed less frustrated there. I recall car rides after church just for fun—the four of us in the Oldsmobile, Momma resting her elbow out the window, her head tossed back, the arm of her glossy wraparound sun glasses hugging the smooth ridge of bone above her ear. We rode along, dreaming. We drove beside the edges of woods on country roads, and I gazed into dense stands of pines and wanted to go inside them. Growing so close together, the trees seemed safe to me, protecting, full of depth and possibility. And when we passed a field with horses, Daddy would whinny, and then we’d beg him to do the moo. He’d say, “No, no,” at first, and we’d beg, “Please, Moo Cow! Moo Cow!” There’d be a pause, long enough for us to think he might really not do it, and we’d wait and wait, me in my hopeful jiggle, you patiently still. Little by little his lips would curl out, and from the bottom of his throat would slide a sonorous, astonishing, “Mooooo.” Its veracity always surprised us. “Yay, Moo Cow!” For years we called him Moo Cow, or Mooky, or Moo.
At the end of the park I turned onto Ninth Street and tried to circle around to Tenth, but block after block the side streets were barricaded; I couldn’t get close enough. Ninth Street rose, and at the top of the incline was our old elementary school. I screamed when I saw it. If anything deserved to be sucked into the bowels of hell, it was that school. Just past it was an open side street, and I was able to turn left onto Tenth. I was eager but slowed to stare at the houses we would’ve passed on our walk to school. They seemed unchanged—wood and red brick, each with a modest piece of porch, drain pipes struggling to stay upright. Everything needed fresh paint. Being on this slight hill, these places were allowed to remain above ground, but the infamous sinking houses would have pulled down their worth.
I came to another set of concrete barriers, beyond which was a sea of brown, grassy humps. I squinted toward the back of the church, where the house would be, and I saw something—there was something, Jules—it was our house, it was there. I turned onto Warnock, entered the church parking lot, sped across it, found an exit onto Tenth, and I parked—right in front of the house.
It was condemned. Our parents’ beautiful bay of windows was boarded up, and below them, the living room windows were not just boarded, they were cemented. I sat, submerged in gray: sky, church, house. But the wood frames were still painted a surprising cranberry, and the red brick walkway was glittery with rain. Usually places are smaller than we recall them; this house was not. The stonework had such texture, thick with mortar. It was still beautiful, I tried to think, despite the front yard full of crushed beer cans, discarded clothes, black plastic garbage bags. I walked though the drizzle toward the door and went up the crumbling concrete steps to look through the front-door windows. They must have been boarded from inside. I was so close to those high-ceilinged rooms, to that feeling of wonder and awe I used to know, to regaining a sense of something vast. But I couldn’t reach it.
I went down the back of the steps and stood, getting wet, in the narrow space between the house and church. The basement windows still had their wrought-iron grates firmly attached. They’d been cemented over anyway. I crouched down. Of course, there was no looking in, but I remembered the game we had with the boxes in the basement when we first moved in, when you were eleven and I was seven and glued to you. You remember: The empty movers’ boxes were stacked against a basement wall, awaiting the next move, rising in a loose pyramid to the top of the 12-foot ceiling. You and I would scale up the side to the apex, climb into the top box, fold our knees to our chests, hug our arms around our shins, and then, giggling, start to rock the box. At first, we rocked gingerly, then faster—you uncertain, me hurling my weight from side to side, until the box, with us in it, cascaded down the side of the pyramid to the floor, bringing an avalanche of boxes down on top of us. God, that was a dangerous game. The basement floor was concrete—we could have fractured our skulls. Where on earth was Momma?
There was a time, leaving Philly, when I thought of her as a remarkably strong woman, coping alone with MS, moving the three of us to Tulsa so she could work the only job she could find—receptionist in her cousin’s husband’s dental office. She managed everything with fierce efficiency: boxes taped tight and labeled in bold black marker, car tires replaced, bunk beds ordered so you and I could share a room in the four-room apartment. But the year after you left for college, when it was just me and her in that stifling apartment, she began telling me all her secrets. I sat at the kitchen table after dinner, trying to do my homework, and she talked. Even then, I wondered why a woman would tell her fifteen-year-old daughter about her suicide attempts. Her husband was leaving her for another woman, and all she could think to do was die. Wife and mother. I’d never have known about it, if she hadn’t spilled, but you knew, didn’t you? The week she spent hospitalized after Daddy was fired, when they said she was going for ACTH treatments—you went by yourself after school one day to see her, without telling Daddy, and you saw her in the psych ward. Everything you knew and feared, you held inside—to protect me.
To sink—to go beneath the surface of, to fall to a lower level, to be absorbed, to diminish in strength, to become less audible, to lose standing, to feel discouraged, to decline in value, to be dying, to disappear.
Later, there was a time I thought of her as unfeeling, walled off from the ebb and flow of ordinary human emotion. Sometimes still I think there is a hook inside her that snags onto death, that wants to die, that wants things to die—that wants to make them dead. In Tulsa one evening after dinner she told me, as though repeating interesting gossip, that the state of Pennsylvania denies gun permits to people with a history of suicide attempts. The week in the psych ward had prevented her from obtaining a gun, she said, not bothering to look at me. She was clattering silverware out of the dishwasher and into the drawer. She’d tried to get a gun; she had her plan.
Sometimes inside me there’s a red-hot arrowhead of hate for her. But then I picture her, our Momma, floating, and I cannot bear the thought of ever losing her.
Tired and damp, I returned to my car and sat staring at the house—such a silent, stony place, with the dimensions of a grave marker. I looked at our third floor, and I wondered again, as I have over the years, which one of us would she have shot first? I realized then: it would have been me. It would have to be. I was the screamer. You were the stoic, who would have been awakened by the first shot. You would have woken in the dark in your bed and heard footsteps, uneven from one foot dragging, growing louder up that unending corridor. You would have had time to think about what you heard. You would have lain in your bed with a fist of terror pulling your stomach into your chest. A sound would have formed in your throat, and you would have held it in. Your eyes would have adjusted to the dark. You would have seen her form appear in your doorway, heard the clacking of the beaded curtain as she stepped in. You would have seen her raise her arm and point something at you, and you— always so smart—you would have known what was coming. In that moment of waiting, you would have realized I was dead. That’s how it would have been: she would have shot me first, then you, then herself. I would have been spared the terror and that stab of grief. You always had to accommodate me. You always drew the short straw. But if I could have, Jules, this time I would have let you go first. You, me, she.
I sat in my car, unable to look away from the house. We could have ended there, but for some policy of the state of Pennsylvania. On the kitchen table in Tulsa my trigonometry book was opened in front of me, and as she talked, I gazed into it. She’d finished unloading the dishwasher—now she was rinsing coffee mugs and settling them into the top rack and explaining why it was necessary to shoot us before killing herself. She’d wanted to “take us with her,” so Caroline wouldn’t “get us.” In her mind, there was a logic for murdering her children. There was a rationale, summed up in one sentence. It wasn’t enough to destroy herself, she had to obliterate what was attached to her, to tug us all into the ground with her. In my chair I pitched forward, my shoulders drawing together, trying to fold myself up, my hands holding each other in my lap. All I could think was, Why is she telling me this?
For years I thought she just wanted to alleviate her guilt, to confess and consider herself forgiven. But now I think she wanted me to feel sorry for her. She wanted me to shake my head sadly over how painful her life had become. Like a child with skinned elbows, she wanted my sympathy, my hand patting hers, my voice whispering, Poor Momma. She wanted to hear Poor Momma and feel cared for. All her life, the woman had felt so deeply unloved, she hoped for pity as a good-enough proxy.
Into late afternoon the drizzle persisted, never mustering the energy to become a storm. The slate sky shifted to a darker hue, and there was nothing to do but drive away. I hated leaving the house. One last look, I told myself—one more. I craned my neck to look at the balcony.
And there we were—you and me, side by side, surrounded by homes snuggled together and gleaming in the sun, babbling our nonsense speeches to rapt audiences below, about to pitch headlong into laughter.