Strange Waters

Strange Waters

Mom says her father was an arsonist. She told me when I was eight. I sat next to her on the sofa, my feet sticking out in front of me. My pajamas had a hole in the right knee.

“Do you know what an arsonist is, Claire?”

I told her I did. I read a lot, and I knew all kinds of things.

I’d never met my grandfather, but I could have. He still lived near my grandmother even though she divorced him, up in Milroy, Pennsylvania, where he shared a snug brick house with his second wife. Grandma Louise said the house had a fat crabapple tree and a fishpond in the front yard. But I never saw Milroy. I mostly saw Grandma Louise when she couldn’t pay her electric bill and Mom brought her down to Baltimore to stay with us, sometimes for months. Occasionally, Mom would ask her to move in with us permanently, but she always refused. “I’m not a sick old woman,” she’d say. Grandma Louise lived in a trailer, out in a rocky field where grass struggled up skinny and brown, and she was proud to have her own place, even if she didn’t own much of the land surrounding it. She had her own bathroom, where she could sit in the tub and dye her hair black, and a bedroom that faced away from the highway. That was all she needed, she told my mother.

She would also say, “Claire needs something better.” Grandma Louise always congratulated Mom on marrying my father, who was kind, wore enormous wire-rimmed glasses, and always had time to teach me chess when he got back from the office. She and my mother kept me away from Milroy. They took me ice skating by the Inner Harbor for Christmas and smiled indulgently as I clung to the wall, inching my way around under the tree lights. They took me to the Walters Art Gallery and let me wander as I pleased, until I finally fell asleep on the bench underneath the portrait of Judith beheading Holofernes with her knife. They let me read whatever I wanted as long as I could get the book off the living room shelf, and when I dragged over a chair to give myself a boost they never considered it cheating. They didn’t make much of an effort to keep the challenging books out of reach, anyway.

They did not take me to Milroy. I saw pictures of Grandma’s trailer. The white paint peeled off the side, and wisteria climbed up and around the door. In the distance, mist clung to the mountains like lint, and yellow-brown corn wilted in the cold, damp fields. None of this seemed threatening. But when I told my grandmother this, she always shook her head. “It’s better you stay far away,” she’d say. What she meant was: Your grandfather is there. He’s an arsonist.

Mom finally said it, though. She couldn’t talk around it anymore. “Some stories,” she said, “need telling.” Some stories needed to be let loose the way people spit to ward off bad luck.

Mom’s story went like this: my grandfather, William Everett Minter, sold used cars from a concrete lot towards the edge of town, near the bank of the Susquehanna River. This location was better for the green things than it was for the cars. Grass slipped up through the concrete cracks and there was a constant rust problem, the paint on the cars pruning like skin in the wet air. But William Everett would arrive at the lot early each morning with fresh paint, sleeves rolled to his elbows, and he would redd up the whole place, Mom said. He shined the cars, scrubbed grime off the windows, and dusted the steps to the shed where he kept his cash register. So in the end, the grit would recede, and William Everett would be free to sell what he had polished, and drive back across town at the end of the day, victorious.

“He worked hard,” Mom said. “My dad was good at making things look nice. He had a real knack for rolling back mileage counters.” She paused. “Do you know why people roll back mileage counters, Claire?”

“Yeah.” I didn’t.

William Everett Minter, you see, was a real conman. He even looked the way conmen did in the old movies. He’d wear these large suits, which made his body look like it took up more space than it otherwise would have. He put too much pomade in his hair, and would sneak off to an empty room and smooth in some more if he was nervous. His teeth were almost impossibly straight and white, considering the nearest dentist was a couple towns over. And in the beginning, people trusted him, even though the movies could have warned them not to. His skill with the mileage counters meant that no one usually realized there was anything wrong with their car until they were sufficiently far away. But soon enough, things unraveled. “People didn’t travel very far from home in those days,” Mom explained. “Word got around eventually. Dad couldn’t buy cars and he couldn’t sell them much either. That made things worse at home.”

At no point in this story did Mom say things were bad at home, so I didn’t know what worse meant. I knew there must have been a reason why Grandma Louise got her divorce, but I couldn’t picture their family life clearly. I had some photos from the early seventies to go by. Mom lived with her parents in a small house with thin paneled walls made to look like wood, an orange carpet in the living room, and no TV. There was no way for me to see that there was a hole punched in the wall, since they blocked it with the sofa. They couldn’t afford to fix it, and didn’t want anyone to see it was there. Mom did say once that when she was small, and happened to wake up too early, she would lie under the covers – even if she really had to use the toilet – and wait until she heard her father leave the house. Then, slowly, finally, she’d slip out of bed.

I might have read a lot, and I thought I knew all kinds of things, but I didn’t know how to extract the truth from things people didn’t say.

In the evening, William Everett would pace in the kitchen. In the morning, he’d drive across town and sit at the table in his shed by the lot, and add more pomade to his hair. He would prowl out among the cars, waiting for customers to drift in. But they didn’t. He didn’t allow Grandma Louise to work, even though she’d been a fair typist in high school and offered to try and find a secretarial position. Grandma stayed in and did her best to stretch the food out. Sometimes, all Mom would have for lunch was a slice of bread. Grandma Louise would twist the bread bag closed as if she were wringing a chicken’s neck.

William Everett knew things were getting dire. “He was a proud man,” Mom said. “But he still wasn’t honest. I don’t think he really knew how to be.” This was why, when he announced that he was going to get a fresh start, he didn’t mean he’d change the way he ran his business. He meant he was going to commit insurance fraud. He was going to burn everything.

One hot June evening, he gathered as much gasoline as he could fit in the back of his green Chevy Malibu, great big plastic tanks with their yellow spouts still dripping, and drove them to his lot while the sun cast a faint red glow over the tops of the mountains. He parked his car. He went into his shed, took what little money remained in his cash register, and pocketed his spare tin of pomade. It must have taken a lot of effort to spread the gasoline around as much as he did. In my head, he rolled up his sleeves, peered out into the still dark with his small eyes, and trailed the gas wherever he lurked. But I don’t know the exact details of that night. Not really. And Mom and Grandma Louise don’t know either. This part of the story took place behind the curtain, before the lights went up. William Everett stayed out late, stumbled back into the house, and slipped into bed where Grandma Louise was already asleep, facing away from him. By the time anyone woke up, the entire lot had burned, and the firemen hadn’t arrived in time to salvage any of it.

*

Grandma Louise added to the story later.

Mom wouldn’t allow her to smoke inside our house, so she insisted on eating supper outside on the iron table that rusted under the maple tree out back. She sat in the shade with her cigarette dangling between her fingers, and I insisted on eating with her. She looked very glamorous with her dyed black curls, red lipstick, and large plastic earrings. “You’re Your grandfather was a real dickhead,” she said, smoke drifting from her mouth.

I nodded solemnly, eating the icing from the inside of my Oreo. “I know.”

She laughed, then coughed. “You don’t, though. You think you do, but you don’t. The whole world was on his side.”

“Why?”

“How should I know? Maybe God knows. Maybe the Devil. If that’s the case I’ve got some words for the both of them. Did you ask your mother why nobody caught William Everett?”

I shrugged.

“They should’ve. The damn fool took his cash and his pomade and drove his car back to the house, where any policeman could have seen that there was drippy gas all over the back seat. But nobody got anywhere near his car or his lot.”

“What did he do?”

Grandma Louise laughed. “He didn’t need to do nothing.”

She told me about the hurricane. This, she said, was the part of the story that mattered, because it explained why their lives were the way they were. While all this subterfuge was going on, there was a storm hovering on the horizon. The men on the radio had been warning everyone about Hurricane Agnes for days. It was supposed to flatten most of Allegheny County, but people didn’t pay much attention to it. Floods happened there, Grandma Louise said. There was one when she was a little girl, and another when her mother was young. Each one was known as the Great Flood.

Maybe the police were sensible. Maybe they began investigating William Everett’s fire, but they couldn’t get very far. A day later, as night fell, it started spitting rain. It wasn’t initially obvious when it began to get worse. The storm made it get dark earlier, the kind of dark where you can’t see the drifting clouds but you can’t see the stars either. The air became thick and moist and smelled like river water. This was because, as the rain poured down, the water from the Susquehanna crept up. River water swept into the church, slapping at the stained glassstained-glass windows until the Virgin Mary’s face shattered. It slid through the screen doors and window shutters that had been flapping in the wind. It crept down the streets with its cold surge, taking tree branches with it, trailing broken telephone poles and spilled garbage and weeds.

Grandma Louise and my mother sat on the roof, holding the chimney, huddled together for warmth. William Everett stood apart from them. Mom had tried to save her favorite Simon and Garfunkel record, but the sleeve was soaked, and eventually, when she realized it was ruined, she had to let it drop. The two of them watched William Everett stand near the edge of the roof and look out over the half-submerged houses, towards the place where his lot used to be. His hair was in disarray, stuck to his forehead in clumps. He laughed, shaking his head, and sat on the edge of the roof, dangling his feet, letting the water brush the last traces of soot from the bottoms of his shoes.

It happened, Grandma Louise explained, because everybody, even the weather, was on William Everett’s side. That was the way things were. He was sweet on her, so her fiancé died out in the Pacific on a sinking aircraft carrier, struggling to stay afloat in the water, and William Everett showed up on her doorstep with a bouquet and a white, white smile, leaning against the rotted porch railing. He could make ruined old things look better and trick other people into taking them off his hands. And just when it seemed like his luck ran out, water poured from the river and the sky to wash away the evidence of his arson, and it would be three more years before Grandma Louise was brave enough to try for a divorce.

Even though Grandma got her divorce in the end, William Everett still came out on top. He never made a single child support payment, and Grandma Louise couldn’t afford to take him to court. “Would have cost me more than I would have got from him,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose money just to prove a point.” I must have looked shocked, because she let me eat three more Oreos, even though Mom would not have approved. “You’ve got to think practically, Claire, that’s just the way it is. Now pass me my pocketbook, won’t you? I need another cigarette.”

*

I am telling this story because when the cancer spread to Grandma Louise’s brain, she thought she was in love with William Everett again. Mom tried to keep me out of Grandma’s bedroom, which was at the far end of her trailer and smelled of potpourri and disinfectant, because she knew it was where her mother was going to die.

It was the first time Mom brought me to Milroy, since Grandma Louise insisted on staying in her own house. The trailer was cramped when I walked through the door, with a kitchen to the right and a bedroom to the left. The bathroom was smaller than my closet at home. I could hear the cars speeding past on the highway even though I was indoors.

Although Mom was sitting on the edge of Grandma’s bed, within clear view of the door, I assumed she didn’t notice me slip into the room. Now I wonder if, after all the effort she put into telling me to stay away, she found that she was beyond caring. I slipped into the space between the dresser and the wall and tried to be very quiet.

Grandma Louise told Mom to light her a cigarette and hold it to her mouth. She took a long drag, closing her eyes. “Where is William Everett?” She asked. “Where is he?” She paused, giggling quietly to herself. “I need to get my lipstick. I need to look good if he’s coming around to see me.”

My mother put the cigarette in Grandma Louise’s ashtray. “Dad isn’t coming. He’s a shithead and we don’t like him.”

But Grandma Louise looked girlish in her recliner bed, with her curly wig, and skinny arms resting on top of her blue floral sheets. “I’m going to marry him,” she said.

“You’ve already divorced him.”

Grandma turned to me then. “Are you a cousin of his?” she asked me. “You look an awful lot like him. Whose girl are you?” I stood in the shadowed corner of the room and watched her see my dark hair and small eyes and teeth that would never need braces.

My grandmother died on a Thursday in October, when I was nine years old. Her funeral was small, and the priest said she was a loving wife and mother, like he was supposed to say, even though he was only half right. I watched my mother close the casket. Above, there were spiderweb cracks in the Virgin Mary’s face. I knew that William Everett Minter lived nearby, with his second wife in his nice house. I imagined that the fish in his pond were fat, gold things that swam out from under the rocks whenever he drew near. The fruit on his crabapple tree would be large and red, weighing down the branches and falling to the ground, rotting quietly in the morning sun.

Sarah Marie Gingerich

Sarah Marie Gingerich

Sarah Marie Gingerich is a writer, record store denizen, and mediocre guitar player from Baltimore, Maryland. She received her English degree from Towson University, having also studied at the University of Leeds, and got her MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in Grub Street and From Arthur's Seat, and has been performed at the Vagabond Theater. Her cats love her.

Sarah Marie Gingerich is a writer, record store denizen, and mediocre guitar player from Baltimore, Maryland. She received her English degree from Towson University, having also studied at the University of Leeds, and got her MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in Grub Street and From Arthur's Seat, and has been performed at the Vagabond Theater. Her cats love her.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *