Underbelly

by Alice Kaltman

A gushing fountain of silty, soiled water spews like a geyser from the kitchen sink drain and spills to the floor. Every inch of turquoise tile is now a liquid landmine. I slosh around in leaky rain boots, holding my phone, and curse the day ten years ago when we moved into this place. Ten years of repeated mistakes—mostly mine—which hounded us like relentless arctic winds. My husband and I chilblained explorers without the proper gear.

Now, I am alone in this dribbling disaster. My husband has left this junk heap, fixer upper, false-promising house. He fled six months ago from the rotted ceiling joists, the toxic mold under the children’s bathroom sink, the nail-popping, wide-beamed floors. And, of course, the septic tank out back that should’ve been replaced eons ago and is now announcing itself in an effluvia mix of human shit and rancid piss.

But in truth, what he escaped: emptied amber glass vials I buried deep in the geranium pots, the emergency gallon of Tito’s stashed behind the extra toilet paper in the pantry, the tiny plastic bags that refused to flush down the toilet, rebels floating to the surface after I’d left them for drowned, greeting him when he went to pee, fly unzipped, lid open.

My husband took the children. No blame there.

Take me away from here, I pleaded twelve years ago in the hazy beginning when the fact that I always had a third or fourth drink hadn’t bothered him, when we both thought change was possible, when we didn’t know the me who raised her spittle-smudged glass was like a scabby apple fallen from a diseased tree with a thud, doomed to rot before I even hit the ground.

The busted septic continues to pulse out dirty secrets. Sludge is rising. It smears the legs of the kitchen table. The tiles covered in cloudy murk, are now the sickly ash of asphyxiation. I sit on a chair with my knees to my chest, an array of poisons displayed on the gingham cloth much like my mother arranged after-school snacks for me when I was a kid. I’d eat supermarket brand vanilla wafers and withered grapes while she sat across from me with her needy, lovelorn bloodhound eyes and her tumbler of gin.

You like it, baby? she asked, her slurred speech a garbled hornet’s nest. Your favorites, right?

I’d nod and chew, nod and chew, shove cookie after cookie between my lips, a thick paste of cheap cream lining the roof of my mouth, grape skins wedged between my teeth, until my mother laid her head on the tablecloth to moan and, eventually, to snore. I’d stare at the specks of dandruff and line of skunk-like grey hair along her part, waiting for the cursed snack-stone in my belly to turn into churning slop, at which point I’d rush to the bathroom and hurl.

Now I think how the optimism that comes with a starter home and starter babies only lasts so long when you’re the kind of woman who, like her mother before her, prefers to hide deep in her own stinky burrow, hoarding shortcomings and sins like dirty tissues wadded up to block the entrance.

I choose each poison carefully. I drink. I smoke. I snort. No more off-brand cookies for this girl. I watch the rising miasmic tide from my perch. Seepage from my own dark underbelly. I toss my rubber boots in and watch them float like jaunty little barges towards the living room. I chuck my phone into the sewage and watch it gurgle and sink. I could save it, I could call someone, but I hold off. Everything will be alright, if I can just hold off.

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