Normal Life

Alexander Rentsch/Flickr
Alexander Rentsch/Flickr

At last the water went down as our mother said it would. Lona and I went out into the dark street to catch and throw the lopsided ball we’d kept up high. After her fifth expert catch, Lona took on a far look and stretched out an arm and pointed.

“Look there,” she said. “That lady.”

I turned. A tall woman in green, buckled shoes. Her clothes were dry, and her waist-length, white hair was wet.

“Just leave her alone,” I said, throwing the ball back at Lona. “She’s not hurting anybody.”

“Well, she’s staring at me,” said Lona.

I looked back to the lady, and Lona was not lying. I was three years older and there to protect her, though sometimes she did lie.

“She’s not bothering you,” I said. “Leave her alone.”

“I will if she does.”

I caught the ball with my signature eyes-closed catch, then opened them and looked back again. The lady would not leave us. I did not want to speak to her but did.

“You need something?” I said. “What can we do for you?”

I’d heard my mother ask it that way, when she was trying to help. Even when she meant I, she said we.

It was not raining, and then it was. Now it wasn’t again. Hurricane Harvey had just come down on us for five days. Every day my mother looked out the window and her pained, two-note whistle was lower. She told us: stay inside, be good. Be good girls. Lord, I was good. What I wondered was if being good made a dent in the world. If being good made any scrape on the world’s surface.

“If I had one wish,” Lona said to the lady, “it’d be that you’d leave us alone.”

“Shut up,” I said. “She’s not doing anything to you.”

The lady bent down to wetly buckle one of her green silk shoes that had come undone, and I wondered how she’d come to be by herself.

“What can I do for you?” I said.

She walked a few steps closer and looked into us.

“You need help?” I said.

Her dress was dark, the color of soft floodwater silt. We’d had a few inches of water in our kitchen, but my mother would not let us leave. The lady had on a jean jacket and an open tongue-colored raincoat over that.

“What do you need?” I said. “You lost? Tell me.”

“She’s creeping on us,” Lona said.

“Just stop it,” I told Lona.

The lady came another step closer and looked at my rain boots, which my mother had bought secondhand, then at the lopsided ball. She held up her hands.

“Give it here,” she said. “Hey. Little girl.”

I threw it, and she caught and cradled the thing for a minute with her eyes closed and her white hair straight and streaming down.


The lady would not leave us. The next morning she was still there, looking at us from the street with our lopsided ball in her hands. Her hair and red raincoat were damp from the hurricane’s rain bands that stayed with us, no matter our mother’s mealtime prayers. Some inches of rainwater in the street, up to the lady’s shoe buckles.

“There’s a woman outside,” Lona told our mother. “Staring at us. And all of a sudden staring, too, like there’s no place else to look.” She sounded put out. Lona was nine and often stared at people herself.

“She need help?” said our mother.

“Don’t think so,” I said.

“Plenty of people are out now. Taking care of things. Let her alone.” Our mother was on the kitchen floor, looking so hard, I thought she could see right through it, as she mopped up the floodwater with dirty rags she’d found in the back of a closet. We had bought some candles, but we didn’t have to use them. “If she’s not bothering you, you let her be.”

We went outside. It was not raining. We went up straight to the lady.

“You want something?” said Lona.

“What can we do?” I said.

I wore the same clothes I had on yesterday, and so did the lady. There were a few neighbors around, poking at the water in the yards, talking into their phones, staring into the sky. Some were crying and some even laughing. Our neighbor Sue was the one laughing at something, probably in her own head. She liked to do that. The lady who would not leave us looked up, still holding our ball. She put her other hand to her cheek in an unnatural way I would not forget and stared into the sky.

“Not a thing,” she said.

“You’re a lunatic,” said Lona. I cupped my hand over Lona’s mouth.

I looked at the woman. “Excuuuse her,” I said, again repeating something my mother had said. “She doesn’t know what that word is. She just thinks it’s bad.”

“It’s not so bad,” the woman said. Her eyes reminded me of my mother’s when she hasn’t slept and makes no plans to. Beneath her, a yellow Bunny Bread wrapper wound its way in the water around her shoes. If she had tried to walk away—which she did not—I would have made my body run after her. I would have made my body a sail.

She threw the ball to me—a short, soft throw, since I stood right in front of her. I threw it back the same way.

“You lunatic,” Lona said. “Leave her alone.”

“She’s fine,” I said. “You seem fine,” I said to the lady.

“That’s not so bad, either,” the lady answered.

We went back inside, and our mother was napping. She’d been up all night watching the storm. Uncle Jon was kneeling, all attention on the floor, mopping the water with rags and brown, sopping wads of paper towels. We told him about the woman.

“She okay?” he said. “Looking for help?”

“Don’t think so,” I said.

“She’s a crazy,” said Lona. We had water, but my sister refused to shower when there was so much rain outside, she said. She smelled like the storm and all the torn pieces of road and mud and flies and worms.

“And so what?” said Uncle Jon, mopping in hard, broad strokes, sweat dripping from the brim of his Astros cap. “You leave her alone. She probably just wants to watch kids being kids outside. Like normal. Like normal life. You can’t forget what it is to have that.”

He mopped and scrubbed that floor even though he’d never lived in our house. I wondered if his coming here, if his being good made any trace of good in the world. If his being good made a difference, like the start of a drawing of some inner life of ours we were just getting to know.

It rained. We stayed inside while it rained more. I helped Uncle Jon wash the rags, but they never seemed to dry. The lady would not leave us. I saw her out the window, holding our ball or fooling with the buckles dripping rain down the sides of her shoes. Uncle Jon did not notice her; he’d look outside and only comment on the rain and say, No, no.

I left Lona watching a Jimmy Stewart movie on the small TV we did not lose and went outside. The lady had our ball in her hands—hands the texture of light, texture of stars—staring up and into the rain.

“Hi,” I said. “Here I am.”

“Aha,” she said, looking down at me, as if I’d summoned her back from a place. “Yes, you are. Look at you.” The words came suddenly, as if she shook them from her mouth. “Look. At. You.”

I ran a ways away and held out my hands, and she threw the ball. Lord, we never missed a catch. Even in the dusk and rain. We played until it grew so late, I could not see, and her shadow became the dark.

It was raining, and then it wasn’t. Then it was. My mother made me a thick butter and Swiss-cheese sandwich, and I ran out to give it to the lady who stood in the rain in the street and would not leave. We’d been through a fight that the rain had almost won, but we were lucky, our mother said, and you remember your luck when people want to tell you you have nothing. That’s what, said Uncle Jon. You remember we have our lives.

And we did.

I told that to the lady. “And those beautiful shoes, too,” I said, because I did want to try them on but knew I could not. “And that raincoat,” I added.

She tugged her shimmering tongue of a raincoat close around her body. I wanted her to know I’d never take it. I wondered if any good thoughts I had about her or toward her made any difference to anyone. I gave her the sandwich, which she took but did not eat. She did not smile, though I don’t know if anything I said could cheer her. Our laughing neighbor Sue was clearing fallen branches from her yard, and she looked over to us but then went back to her work. About once a week she’d complain that the heat made her melt, and I imagined her melting down with her short silver hair, down, down to a watery mirror on the pavement. Our across-the-street neighbor who was a cop during the day looked up and held his phone in front of him and took a picture of the sky.

“You look like you’re lost,” the lady who would not leave us said to me. “Are you lost, sweet girl?” She moved her white hair forward over one shoulder, and the water dripped in a line: her hair to her palms to her feet. Just the toes of her shoes were covered in floodwater.

“I live right there.” I pointed.

“Aha,” she said. “Don’t worry. I live. I live here, too.”

“Where? Where do you live?”

She had our ball in her hands—still the texture of starlight, of stars—which I hadn’t noticed. I thought we had our ball in the house.

“Hold on,” I said.

I ran inside to Uncle Jon and my mother.

“If she doesn’t need our help,” he said, “she’s okay standing there.” The water was gone in the kitchen now; he was sweeping the leaves from the floor. “Maybe she’s just watching. You know.”

“Or afraid,” I said.

“Bring her a bite,” said my mother. She lay the dirty rags to dry on the counter. The storm dirt was coming off in her hands. I watched her face and saw her mouthing a prayer. We’d lost some things, but I won’t list what. We had no insurance, and my mother refused to keep a list. There was always more to lose, she’d said, so you don’t start counting.

“I did already,” I said.

“Well then, ask her in for a meal,” said my mother. “And a seat.”

“Yes, yes,” said Uncle Jon, looking out the window.

“We owe the world some things,” said my mother.

Lona and I set the table with the Sunday placemats and plates from up high. She was stooped in the puddle when I went to get her, looking down into it. Her hair was wet and gray-white and aglow. I said, come with me. I wondered if she heard me at all—she did not look up—but after a minute she stood and walked through the ankle-high puddle and followed me. I would have made my body a sail. I would have made my body an anchor. I would have made my body a body to help hers. Our neighbor Sue looked up into the clouds that broke to pieces to shatter the blue sky behind. Never in our lives had we all stared at the sky and the ground so much. The lady who would not leave us walked up our three front steps, then stopped at the door. Damp leaves were stamped into the part of the shaggy carpet where we kept our shoes.

“Come in,” our mother said in the doorway.

“Welcome,” said Uncle Jon, who took off his cap.

“Well come on,” said Lona, and the lady walked in with the dusky clouds forming behind her shoulder. Even that December I would still see traces on our rug of the prints left by her wet green shoes, of the rainwater that dropped in rivulets from her waist-length hair.

“We’re having pasta and beans,” my mother said. “Please.” She extended her hand.

“Nice and hot,” said Uncle Jon.

“Pretend it’s ice cream,” said Lona.

And the lady sat down.

I wondered what she thought of us at dinner: Lona and our mother recounting their dreams. One of them was the same dream, mostly of water raining down on their beds, which did not happen but might very well have, which made my mother not understand the nature of dreams, she said.

Before dark our mother turned on the porch light and sent Lona and me outside with nubs of pastel chalk to draw on the wet sidewalk by our street. The lady followed, did not leave our side. Lona drew a fenced-in horse trying to leave waves of water. I wrote down my full name and my birthday, and then I drew a horned lizard and a stick-figure boy. The lady hunched over the ground and worked quickly, but I could not read what she wrote. I did not know. I wrote my address. I wrote LONA and JON. I wrote LADY. My mother called our names. I drew my mother. I wrote her name. I drew harder, I drew faster. I pressed the pink soft point of my chalk hard into the damp. I leaned down. Lona looked into the sky and spoke like she was already asleep. She went inside, but the lady and I only looked at the ground, working into the night, making our own swift scrapes in the dark.

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Olivia Clare is the author of a book of short stories, Disasters in the First World, and a collection of poems, The 26-Hour Day. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. A few lines in this story are indebted to Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem “Soul Keeping Company.”


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