IT CANNOT HOLD: short story

Elinor hated showering. When she was naked, it was hard not to examine herself all over for cysts and goiters. She was convinced she could feel something, bulging and moving under her skin.

“You don’t need to fear death, honey,” her grandmother’s roommate at the nursing home had told her. “It’s the most peaceful thing. It’s like going home. Just like going home.”

Bullshit. Later her grandmother had died quaking with fear, her emaciated fingers pulling at the feeding tube until the doctors had to put her in restraints. If that was going home, then —

Elinor closed her eyes. She didn’t want to think about these things. But being in the shower, looking at herself as she really was, always brought it up. It was better if she just kept her clothes on. Say what you would about him, Tuck had intuited that much when he just pulled up her tweed skirt, yanked down her ribbed tights, and had sex with her right on the conference table. He had never even seen her tits, which relieved her, because there were possible problems with those, too.

And now she had a pregnancy to worry about. Elinor tried to hold back the thought, but it was like a battering ram against her skull.

The shower drain burped. This was not normal. The burp was loud, loud as the belches Tuck let out when his office door was closed and he thought no one could hear, loud enough that she marveled at such a noisy accident of misplaced gas and heavy flesh. She shuddered. There was no flesh here except her own. Pale and vulnerable. Naked and wet.

It was hard to think rationally in this state of undress, but Elinor did believe in fixing problems as soon as she noticed them; this was what made her such a valued employee. That and fucking the boss — she couldn’t believe she’d done that.

Tilting the shower nozzle at the tiled wall, she squatted down to take a closer look, acutely aware of her varicose veins like purple bugs swarming under the skin.

The drain was brittle and black. It could have been a hundred years old. If they even made drains that long ago. She remembered an upsetting magazine article about the country’s crumbling infrastructure: in many places, the original underground pipes had rotted away, leaving long tunnels in the dirt which the water rushed through, the literal sheer force of habit holding everything together. Not so much as a safety pin prevented things from falling into catastrophe. It could be happening now.

The drain emitted another ominous burp. She wouldn’t know how to explain this to someone like Tuck, who insisted on rationality, but somehow she thought the burp sounded alive. It scared her.

It burped again. This time it jumped like the lid on an over-boiling pot, belching brown gravy. Elinor leaped backward with a scream, her feet slipping on the rumpled, half-stuck tub mat. She flailed, trying to regain balance. Everything was too slick. She was going down.

She slammed into shallow, surprisingly cold water, her tailbone reverberating like a funny bone. Alarmingly, the drain burbled again, coughing up more fetid brown liquid. Elinor scrambled her feet against the sides of the tub, trying to get away as the smell filled her nose.

With an abrupt slurp, the brown stuff went back down, leaving a smear of ochre. The smell was like fermented shit yet — somehow — comforting.

She managed to climb out of the tub. Already out of breath. Shameful. Wrapping herself in her robe, the usual hatred flared as she saw herself in the mirror. The fluorescent light highlighted her white hairs, like tiny bolts of lightning on her dark head.

A scrap of half-forgotten poetry flashed in her mind. The center cannot hold. She couldn’t remember anything else. Expensive education, wasted now. Even that bit fluttered away, like a piece of paper caught in the wind, lifted high beyond the trees.

She looked back at the tub. Now the drain was nowhere to be seen as the tub calmly filled with brown liquid, as if this was how things were supposed to be.

Elinor thought that this might be the primordial soup she had heard about on science shows. It was life-giving. It had never gone away; it had hidden in the bowels of the earth all this time, like a treasure. She wasn’t going home; home was coming to her.

Suddenly dizzy, Elinor held on to the sink for support. Slowly, she made her way to the toilet and sat down. Shaking all over, like her grandmother at the end, she emitted a great and sudden burp. Then she puked. More brown stuff. On her hands, on her wrists. She looked at it in wonder.

It ate through the flesh on her spread thighs, but by then Elinor’s eyes were on the sky, somehow already visible through her bathroom ceiling. The end came from below. The tub overflowed. Ecstasy.

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9 thoughts on “IT CANNOT HOLD: short story

  1. Subtle & hard to pack so much emotional range in a short story.Kudos to you. To me, it actually covers birth, death and everything in between, and travels from bowels to sky (I don’t mean that humorously, it really does have that range.) Nice going!

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