first appeared in The Allegheny Review
by Mike Marshall Wilson
That man over there, his name is Chalmers — but that ain’t his first name and, no, I sure don’t remember his first name. It’s a funny thing not to remember a man’s first name, I know, but that’s what he goes by anyway: Chalmers. He rents from me — that one, see, down the way just a few houses down; Delores and I bought it last year, got it real cheap, you remember me telling you.
Chalmers lost his daughter last night. She drowned in that flash flooding is how.
Now I wish I’d have never bought that place, I wish the idea had never even come to my head. Everyone called me crazy for buying it after it burned to the ground last year, even you, but I always knew I could build it back up real nice for the money. I thought it would be a good idea.
You know the story: the oldest boy of the family who lived in that house before, the boy who came back from overseas went crazy one night; I guess he snuck into his ma and pa’s room while they were asleep, and pulled his daddy’s revolver from the drawer, and cocked it, and started pulling the trigger at ’em. It wasn’t loaded, but the old man woke up and the boy started hittin’ him with it — buffaloed him, like in the Westerns you and I go see once in a while — and they grappled all throughout the house. All the while the wife was screaming and the sisters were hollering, and they really started going at it in the living room. The boy, I hear, had started a fire in the fireplace — don’t anyone know why — and his pa shoved him back a good one and his leg dipped right into the flame. He came out screaming because his leg was on fire, and his daddy took his own shirt off and smothered the boy’s leg, but in the process the boy brushed up against the curtains and the whole place caught on fire. Of course that’s just the story I put together from all the rumors about it. Sounds like the way some things happen in a Hitchcock movie.
They moved across town, and I hear that the boy is in that sanitarium over in Raytown. The pa died a few days later. Breathed in too much smoke. I bought the lot from his wife after that because they had a hell of a time at selling it. Figured I was doing them a favor. The house was all burned to hell and that was right about the time that the city claimed Eminent Domain on the front part of the property to put in a storm drain and expand the road all the way down the block. City came in and dug under his drive and everyone else’s, and started to lay pipe. I offered them cash and got it from them after the city started digging. They didn’t even negotiate.
I reframed most of it and put wood floors throughout, added a two car garage to the side, stuccoed the outside and whitewashed over it. Real nice, I think. Then the city pulled all those bulldozers out — left all that work unfinished, just up and left everything as it stood, left this mess for everyone to see.
They left their work signs up for months, made the road one lane so that no drivers would veer near the trench; they left all those pipes out and uncovered — some had been laid under and some were, like I say, up and laying on those stacks of two-by-fours. We thought it was a real eye-sore. And so did any potential renters. (I know with you livin a few blocks down the way that it wasn’t no big deal to you, but to us it was such a headache.) Even worse, everyone saw it as a hazard and so did I — and now we know we were right about that — but there was so much already dug that all I could think to do was to add some extra orange cones around some of the deeper holes. And I even bought some yellow tape, like that crime scene tape on T.V., and I put it around those really huge holes they dug on each side of the driveways, the holes they dropped those concrete portholes into (that’s the best way I know how to say it, portholes, like those German pillboxes we came upon back in the war) and they just left them unfilled and sitting there like that. And since they started the improvement up the street, way up there at the top of the hill, and stopped down here clear at the bottom, every time it rains hard it all fills up and rushes downhill like a river (four or five feet deep of fast rushing water can be real bad, you know, I don’t have to tell you that), and that’s a steep damn hill.
I called the city every week and told them that they had liability all over the place down here. Every week they told me that 42nd to 43rd was on the docket to be taken care of, but every week just came and went. One day I got to the bottom of it. I heard that the city itself was dealing with some kind of embezzlment problem and they ran out of money to pay the contractors so they just left everything as it was, dozers and backhoes and all, and just stopped working; heard the city was waiting on the State to bail them out, I guess. We weren’t the only area affected. A real fiasco, I suppose. So I had a hell of a hard time fillin the house with a renter. Before I knew it, it was vacant for almost three months. Delores and I carried two mortgages all that time and she was thinking about going to get herself a job downtown at Montgomery Ward or Woolworth’s or somewhere. We started talking about selling our house and moving down the street into that one. Delores said it was our Just Desserts for taking advantage of our neighbor’s situation. “Just Desserts?” I said to her. I told her I didn’t think she was using the term write. I said, “I think you mean Grapes of Wrath.” She got mad at me.
Then, about a month ago, I heard the doorbell ring and Chalmers was standing outside my door kinda like how he’s standing now down there by the trench — had his hands in his pockets just like that. He introduced himself, said, “I’m Chalmers. Full name’s Lloyd Chalmers but just call me Chalmers, please.” But I don’t know if he said Lloyd, or Larry, or whatever, I just don’t remember. I said okay, Chalmers, what do you want? He asked me how much of a deposit I was asking for my rental down there and said that if I wasn’t asking too much he’d like to rent it from me. I told him no deposit and rent is four hundred a month. “Okay then,” he said. “I’d like to move in as soon as possible.” He didn’t even ask about the trench or the holes, or when the city would finish the work, so I didn’t figure to bring it up.
I’ve been trying to forget about it, to tell you the truth, but I guess I might as well say how it happened. Chalmers’ little girl, I’d guess she was only five or six years old, I don’t know exactly, ain’t old enough to be in school yet, anyway, I don’t think. You know that hellacious rainstorm we had last night? Yeah, well, it flooded all of the city’s work. The water filled up the trench all the way down the street and ran down here like a freight line, and flooded all of them portholes, flooded everything.
Anyway, Chalmers went out there because he was curious, I think. He was standing out there and somehow his little girl ran out of the house. You know how kids are: she ran right out there in her little pajama’s and Chalmers turned around and started to yell at her to get back inside. She tried to stop, I heard, but slipped and slid right down into the water and that water grabbed hold of her. Chalmers reached for her, of course, but she was under like that, stuffed into a drain under his driveway, and you could tell she was stuffed in there because the water level rose more. Chalmers screamed and his wife came out to the door and he hollered for her to call 9–1–1, and Chalmers was to the garage and back with a long rope probably before his wife even got to the phone. He tied it around the stump over there — look, see, it’s still there. He wrapped it around his arm and hurried in, sank himself right down to that drain in the porthole, and found her. He pulled on her so hard, hard as he could, I imagine, but all that water was arguing with him. Minutes went by, and eventually it was a given that she wasn’t coming out but he pulled anyway, all the way up until the ambulances came. I heard that after they got her out of there that her arm was twisted up like a wrung rag because her daddy had tugged so hard.
This whole thing’s got me sick. Really. I been throwing my guts up over it all morning, and Delores finally talked me into going down there to say something to him. That’s what I was doing, going on down to have a talk with him, before you came walking up. Tell me, what do I say to that man? I told Delores I should just wait ‘til the funeral but she says I should come down here because we ain’t only his landlords but also his neighbors. She says I should tell him we’ll do whatever he needs, or at least ask him if we can do anything for him. He’ll say no, because there ain’t nothing anyone can do for something like that. But Delores, uh, you know how she is. She doesn’t understand that someone probably just wants to be left alone after something like this. But I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t go over to him.
Hang on, will you? Please don’t go. Stand here and talk with me just a minute longer.