Everything But the Poison

by Kelly Magee


Enid’s house looked like the Katrina houses, though the storm had yet to come. It wasn’t just the swampy yard, or the front porch slouching off its foundation. It wasn’t the cracked windowpanes, the missing chunks of foundation, the layers of silt and grime. The frayed curtains dangling from busted rods. The piles of chaos inside, as if her things had once been buoyant and then settled, haphazardly, when the water receded. It was more the feeling of evacuation, the evidence of how the owner had been wrenched from the middle of her life without warning. Laundry gone stiff hung in the shower. Open books straddled couch arms. A claw-foot tub sprouted vegetables, herbs in various stages of preservation. Piles of dirty and once-clean dishes now dark with dust and roach droppings. A kettle of moldy water on a burner. Things frozen in stages of completion. She’d been gone for months by then, but her mint was still thriving. Her ornamental peppers, still bearing.

~

Lauren and I had been together two years when she brought me to see her grandmother’s house in Lakeview, a wealthy suburb of New Orleans. It was 1999, and Enid was already living at Maison Hospitaliere. I’d only seen her once, a few years prior, when I was visiting. In the bakery aisle at Dorignac’s, Lauren had leaned over and whispered, “That’s my grandma.”

“That bag lady?” I said. Nearby, an old woman engulfed in clothes and coats leaned over a cart. She wore a hat. In the summer. In Louisiana.

Lauren laughed and pulled me in the other direction.

Enid was gone by the time we moved there, but Lauren had plenty of people, aunts and great-aunts, neighbors she’d grown up with, nuns and teachers. Her bloodline went back to the canal-diggers. Humidity was in her genes, passed down with pole legs and an aquiline nose, blue eyes, the thick, blonde hair she buzzed off, an accent she could dial up or down at will. But me, this was my first real city. I’d grown up in Orlando, guzzling fairy tale until I was sick. There, street sweepers with dustpans on handles removed the refuse every six to eight minutes inside the theme parks, and outside, a city ordinance prohibited bums. In New Orleans, things smelled bad. I liked that about a place.

We rented a one-bedroom in Metairie, the suburb where Lauren’s parents had owned a brick house with white shutters for thirty-five years. Pick one you like, Al had told his new bride, because we’re not moving. My family had lived in fifteen houses in nine years; I’d gone to seven schools. We moved to Orlando when I was eight and spent the next ten years circling the place, trying to figure out how we fit in. We didn’t fit in. Not until they split up did either of my parents settle down. Lauren had roots, people. She knew where she was from.

Our apartment was in a part of Metairie called Fat City, a name which had something to do with the line of liquor stores and strip joints on nearby Veterans Highway, and something to do with the clientele. We picked Golden Key Apartments because the landlady, Barbara “no relation” Bush, said she’d waive the pet deposit on account of how cute our Cocker Spaniel was. Lauren said we were on the parade route, which meant come Mardi Gras, we’d have primo seats. A selling point for me, since I’d never had primo seats to anything but Disney’s electric parade.

The apartment itself was tiny. Empty, even after we’d moved in. For two weeks, Lauren, the dog, and I shared a twin mattress on the floor. When Lauren’s dad Al told us we could loot his mom’s vacant house for furniture, I made a list: dining table, dresser, couch. Things to make an empty apartment seem like home.

~

Freezerbags full of pennies. Shelves of cheap flashlights, red and green and blue, no batteries. Stacks of potholders. Drawers full of keys. Furniture piled on furniture piled on books piled on linens piled on clocks. End tables on mattresses on wicker chairs on desks. Things packaged and repackaged, stuffed in plastic and re-stuffed in drawers. Tea strainers, wool blankets, umbrellas. In a jewelry box, ten pairs of eyeglass frames, no lenses. A dresser full of paper fans. China crammed full of toilet paper, empty peanut butter jars, gardening books. Plastic cups from Mardi Gras floats. Everything removed from its original packaging and hand-sealed in Enid’s own bags, preparation for some future disaster.

~

The closeness of the house thickened the summer heat into gravy. It was a giant garage sale, but better: everything free and mine for the taking. After letting us in with his key, Al stayed in the kitchen, near the back door. This was where he’d grown up. Enid had lived here from the time she’d given birth to his older brother until the day Al found her, chin to chest and reeking of urine, laid out on her rattan sofa. She’d been there for days, refusing to answer her phone. Now she called him from Maison Hospitaliere to ask why he hated her. Eighteen, nineteen times a day, she called, pissed, demanding rectification. “Why you hate me,” she’d say coldly. “When I’m going home.”

Lauren made paths through her grandmother’s piles, shouting to me from somewhere close but inaccessible. I found a cheese grater, a ceramic pitcher, a yoga book, a trivet. She found a collection of six screen doors propped against the wall. Lauren coveted doors, wishing, maybe, to possess the means to escape. Or a way to keep someone out. Once, she made a gigantic desk out of a door, one that took up half our tiny room, inlaid with a slate-and-oyster-shell mosaic. A tree branching out of it. Today when she sees a door, she will pause, make a small sound of pleasure, say, Look at that. Even after fifteen years, I won’t see what she sees. I’ll be looking for something else.

We didn’t take the doors. We took, instead, the dining room table, oak, round, split down the middle. Masking-taped together. A clear plastic tablecloth melted into the surface. Five thick legs that ended in wheels, like tiny hooves. It pulled apart to make room for a leaf, for two leaves, for six.  It stretched clear across the room.

Al said we’d find our fortune in that table. Enid hid money in places she could no longer recall, a true daughter of the Depression, sewing cash into her curtains, taping it beneath a drawer. I weighed her bags of pennies in my hands, imagined what could be buried in our table. The fortune I wouldn’t know what to do with.

It took four men – Al, Lauren’s brother Nick, and two neighbors – to get the table out of Enid’s house and up to our apartment. We carried the other things ourselves: a three-legged stool held together with wire. A busted tabletop grandfather clock that bonged plaintively all the way from Lakeview to Fat City. Heirlooms. Broken things. Right away I bought a round tablecloth and rigged it to the table. It hung off the edges like a tutu. The wheels underneath like pointe shoes, poised, ready to arabesque out the window. I sat there alone, mornings before work, staring at a banana tree so waxy and green I assumed it was fake. It took up the whole window, our only view. One day it sprouted tiny bananas, but they rotted and fell off before anything approaching ripeness.

~

Notes taped to the walls and left on tables. Grocery lists. Journals. Names of things she was beginning to forget. “On/Off” next to the light switch. “Cupboard” next to the cupboard. Recipes, followed by instructions for tanning hides, followed by the symptoms of dehydration. Rants. Poems. One entry where she worried about thieves coming to take her guns.

She had guns? Lauren said.

Al grimaced. Found them in her laundry basket.

~

After moving Enid’s table into our apartment, we went out to eat. Every week, sometimes twice, we ate at Metairie landmarks, places with full bars and names in the possessive. Mr. Ed’s, Sidmar’s, Frankie’s. Menus brimming with fried oysters, barbeque shrimp, turtle soup. Soft-shelled crab, Andouille sausage, whole roasted duck. Order whatever you want, baby, her great-aunts would croon. You getting a drink? Her mom ordered bourbon and water, her dad, strawberry daiquiris. “Lauren, what does Kelly want?” they’d ask. There were always appetizers. Always desserts. Always someone tucking away the tab. And because this was Metairie, always someone else to be introduced to. “This is Lauren’s friend Kelly,” they’d say. “Her college roommate.”

I was a vegetarian whose options were Eggplant Parmesan or the Wop Salad. I worked a minimum-wage job at a bookstore café where we were forbidden from accepting tips. I’d been Lauren’s roommate, it was true, but we were no longer in college.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m the roommate.”

I bent over plate after plate of Eggplant Parmesan I couldn’t afford. Ate quickly. Ordered dessert.

~

Lauren was good at pretending things were okay when they weren’t. When I got sick, everybody knew it. Large piles of tissues collected around me. Every exhale came out a groan. Do I feel hot to you? I said, following Lauren around our apartment. Does my throat look red? I shivered audibly, kicked the covers off. I flipped languidly through TV channels.

“I’m miserable,” I said.

At dinner, I spun plain linguini on my fork and glared at the steaks and ribs and entire roasted birds around me. “I’m not hungry,” I said to no one, “because I’m so sick.”

“How’s the job?” Al asked Lauren between bites of mashed potatoes. “You selling any cars?”

“I don’t know why someone with one degree in English and another in theater is selling cars,” her mother said loudly. But Lauren wasn’t selling cars. That was the problem. She’d been hired at the Saturn dealership but had yet to break even between commission and hourly wage.

“I sold a used one at the beginning of the month.” Lauren laughed and looked at me. I’d heard this story. “The other day I had a woman want to buy a car, you know, so I’m showing her around, giving her my pitch, and she says she wants to buy a top of the line. So I hand her over to financing, and they laugh at me because she’s got no credit. Two repos in the last year. So beware of the easy sell, they tell me.”

Everyone chuckled, nodding into their plates. Al was an accountant; Lauren had bought her first car with cash. I was the one who carried debt like luggage. My dad was in finance, too, but he sold high-interest loans to hard-up customers. Boats for people with bad credit. He believed everyone should have access to money. I was the one who told Lauren to cash in her savings, her mutual fund, her retirement. I was the one who said, “Let’s move,” over and over again.

At dinner that night, Lauren switched plates with me, finishing what I couldn’t. Her Granny asked if I’d lost weight and offered a piece of chicken.

“I don’t eat meat,” I said.

“That’s right.” She shook her head mournfully. “You eat seafood, huh?”

“I try not to.”

Lauren finished my plate and reached for her mom’s, chucking off shrimp heads with a slender thumb. Arms propped on the table, fingers slick with butter. I glowered at her, but she didn’t notice. In my family, we could catch each other’s attention from across the room simply by staring. We felt that attention like breath, like a tap. We looked up. They didn’t use their faces the same way in Lauren’s family. They didn’t point with their eyes; they didn’t threaten with a look. I could stare at Lauren for hours, and she might never notice. Sometime long ago, she’d trained herself to ignore that weight.

~

Away from Metairie, I could almost forget I didn’t belong there. Driving past the canal at sunset, it was easy to imagine the water pure, cleared of sewage and heavy metals and nutria. The warm, damp air leaned into me like the old ladies in Dorignac’s who’d pick through my cart as I shopped, holding up an off-brand of cheese and saying, “Aw, honey, you don’t want this.” In Jackson Square, hustlers yelled, “Bet you twenty dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes.” (“On my feet,” I yelled back, having played this game before.) In the Quarter, boys with soda caps glued to their sneakers tap-danced for tips. Couples in ballgowns and tuxedos jostled neo-hippies in patchwork dresses, addicts lolled against piss-smelling buildings, men painted silver mimed on cardboard-box stages. A trombone player rested in an alley. A short man in a top hat pushed carriage rides. Strip clubs and art galleries, coffee shops and absinthe houses, sushi buffets and Lucky Dog vendors, and on and on and on.

Most nights we walked bare-shouldered to O’Flaherty’s on Toulouse, where you could get cider on tap if you didn’t mind being shit on by pigeons roosting in the trees above the patio. Being from Orlando, I knew how to hate tourists, so I watched what the locals did, picked up the accent, dropped the names of streets and neighborhoods, kept track of the Saints – both the Catholic and athletic varieties. Nights in this city, before the second and then third bar, before the cash Lauren’s parents gave us for groceries turned into credit transactions, before it all began to rock and collide, before I was tripping into the dark, sloshing through the filthy liquid in the gutters that left a film between my bare toes that I wouldn’t wash off before bed – nights like these, I felt like we could make it here.

When we left, we walked along streets lined with gas lights, past the waiters in paper hats at Café du Monde, past signs for midnight tours of above-ground cemeteries, past historical mansions with dark lawns stretched out behind wrought iron fences. In the car, we avoided the foot traffic on Bourbon Street but were always getting stuck behind a horse and buggy, the bag of shit attached to the mule’s ass wagging just beyond the windshield.

~

By November, Lauren had sold three cars. Still not enough to break even. I’d gotten sick twice more, back to back.

“You should go to the doctor,” Lauren told me after my six-hour shift making café au laits and sneaking out a tip jar that my manager confiscated. “That cold’s hanging on too long.”

It was the longest I’d been sick, a triple succession of viruses packed into a six-week period. I blamed everything: the dirty cups and plates and straws I handled, the stress that’d compromised my immune system – the time spent crouched over Enid’s table worrying over the electric bill, the phone bill, the student loan bills. The city itself. Something in the air, something emanating from the canals and breeching the levees, something that issued straight from the people.

The coffee shop didn’t spring for health insurance. My sinuses filled like water balloons. They gave me headaches. Made my teeth hurt. Threw off my equilibrium. Made me a little stupider. A little less able to recognize the bigger problems when they arose.

~

I’d like to think it could’ve begun like this: an illness. Something small, like a papercut on the inside. Impossible to recognize for what it is. When Lauren’s Grandpa Rock, for whom Lauren and I would later name our son, got sick, I imagine Enid held it together for a while. She had a long history of fixing things: she was a gardener, a seamstress. A collector of broken things. A sick husband would’ve been another item on the long list of things she took care of. And she did take care of them. Until she didn’t.

In her house, we found lists carefully cut from periodicals and scotch-taped to the pages of a composition notebook: Hints from Heloise, an ad for Victorian Gingerbread Vintage Woodworks, a geography test from the Times Picayune. Templates, budgets for household expenses for things she didn’t own, like a car, and no numbers filled in. Recipes. Gardening tips. The definition and etymology of “wassail.” A two-page list of hog varieties. The bloodline of black and white marriages. A description of shingles and how to treat it.

Nowhere, the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Or, for that matter, depression.

He was sick for ten years before she locked him out. When you ask Al or the Aunts why she did it, they’ll tell you she was crazy. She was mean, they’ll say. They’ll shake their heads, the verdict clear: no good reason. No reason at all.

There’s more to the story. Of course there is. She locked him out of the house one day, and never let him back in. Not to get his clothes, which she wore, not even to get his wallet, which she kept on top of a cabinet. He went to live with his sisters, the Aunts, and stayed there until he moved into the nursing home where he died. He and Enid lived in the same neighborhood, one-and-a-half blocks away from each other. Enid still showed up at family Christmas parties. It didn’t occur to Lauren that this was unusual, which makes sense once you get to know that side of the family. The Aunts – there were three of them, though I only knew two – lived together their whole lives. One of them married briefly. When her husband drowned, she moved back in with her sisters for good. Rock was the only sibling to marry for any length of time.

There are things that keep siblings together: love, certainly, but also shame. Secrets. Things that are not my story to tell. I don’t know why Enid sent Rock back to his sisters after so many years. I don’t know what happened the day she decided to lock the door. What I’m sure of is that she didn’t do it just because she was crazy.

After that, for sure, the crazy found her. She stopped keeping house, started stockpiling. She’d always been a packrat, but she no longer contained the mess to the garage or sewing room. It wasn’t true, what I’d assumed. The day Al removed her from the house, he hadn’t lifted her from the middle of a life. Those things I’d seen partially done, the laundry and the dishes? They’d been like that for months. Maybe years.

There was no money in the table we took. There was no money sewn into the curtains or taped under the dresser. No secret doors or pockets. No stash. The table survived several cross-country moves until, a decade later in a city almost as far from New Orleans as it’s possible get in the U.S., it finally cracked in half. The two parts sit in my shed. I am convinced I will fix it someday. I am convinced, also, that if I stop believing this, it will mean something terrible.

~

My cold subsided for a while, came back, and by the time I finally got to the doctor it was a few days before Christmas. The doctor stuffed gauze up my nose and said I had a sinus infection, seventy bucks to diagnose what I’d told him on the way in. He asked if I had any allergies, and I told him no, and he prescribed penicillin. I popped one of the samples and drove back to the coffee shop to finish my shift. I’d decided to stay in New Orleans instead of spending money to go home for the holidays.

My condition changed the eve of Christmas Eve at a party at the Aunts’. First I got better: my nose cleared up, my head stopped aching. I woke with two tiny bumps on my back – mosquito bites, I’d told Lauren.

“Those look like hives,” she said.

“I never get hives,” I said.

At the Aunts’ house I ate peeled shrimp swimming in butter, stuffed artichokes, crab cakes. I drank four glasses of wine, each from a different bottle, justifying both the seafood and alcohol because it was Christmas, and I’d been sick so long, and I missed my family, and it didn’t count if the wine was from different bottles. I got two gifts, one from Lauren’s parents and a gift certificate from her Granny. I guarded my little pile closely.

Then I got worse. My fever returned with gusto. The bug bites turned electric. In a back bedroom, Lauren pulled up my shirt and said, “Holy shit.”

“What?” I said, craning around to see.

She touched my skin with a cool hand. “You got hives.”

My back was a blotchy mess. The hives had sprouted, blossomed, brambled. My hives had hives. I looked like a documentary photo. Disgusting, mesmerizing.

“Do you want to go home?” Lauren asked, and I assured her I could wait out the party. I hadn’t made the connection yet. It must’ve been something I ate last night, I told her, though the only thing I’d eaten was peanut butter and jelly, what I ate every night before work.

At eleven thirty, right on schedule, I took my next dose of penicillin.

I remember sitting on the Aunts’ couch. I remember the itching. And then the next thing I remember is getting out of the car at the hospital, my feet so swollen they wouldn’t fit in my shoes. Hives on my face, behind my knees, under my hair. This damn city, I remember thinking. It’s going to kill me.

Even the ER doctor couldn’t disguise his incredulity: “Why didn’t you stop taking the pills?” he said.

I didn’t know. I hadn’t realized. It’d been Lauren’s mom who’d made the diagnosis sometime near the end of the party. Without her, I might’ve still been taking my pills, blaming my reaction on the shrimp. On the weather. On the canals. Blaming the poisoning on everything but the poison.

~

After a shot of cortisone in my hip, I spent the night moving between couch and tub. The colloidal-oatmeal baths were like antidotes to the pain. The double dose of Benadryl, like crack. May cause excitability in children, it said on the label. I was awake for three nights.

When the twelve-ounce box of Soothing Bath Treatment ran out, I begged Lauren to get more. It was the middle of the night. My hives were raging and my feet were so swollen I could barely walk.

“Get more,” I said. “Please.” I could see how helpless she already felt, how lost. She studied the ingredients on the box.

“It’s just oatmeal,” she said. Surprised, like she’d stumbled upon the cure for a disease and she wasn’t even a doctor. It was impossibly easy. We had Quaker Oats in the cabinet.

She used the whole box. Even in my incoherent state, I paused over the tub-sized bowl of oatmeal before me. It didn’t look like the Soothing Bath Treatment. But I was already naked – I couldn’t stand to wear clothes – and desperate. I got in. I sat in the water for ten minutes before I began to laugh. Lauren, sitting on the toilet, looked up in alarm.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “It just says, ‘oatmeal.’ See?”

I stood, oats sticking to every body part, dripping from my hair. Oats that refused to be brushed away or to wash down the drain. I got myself together and went back to the hospital. Charged another ER trip to the credit card. Got steroids this time, a step-down program that made me ravenous. It worked. Be careful not to go back to work too soon, the doctor at the hospital cautioned. Cortisone weakens the immune system, making it doubly easy for you to get sick.

~

When our six-month lease came up for renewal, instead of staying in our primo parade location, we bolted one month before Mardi Gras. I called my mom in Florida, asked what she’d think about us moving in with her.

She said we could have the spare bedroom.

I gave my two-week notice at the coffee shop, to which the manager shrugged. “It’s hard to keep people,” she said. Lauren waited until the last day to tell the dealership she was leaving, informing her boss that she wouldn’t be back.

“You mean, for a while?” he said.

No, she said. She meant not ever.

Lauren’s family treated our move out of town like an extended vacation. Like at the end of it, we’d be back. As if either they didn’t believe Lauren would go, or couldn’t stomach the thought of it. Perhaps it just disappointed them to see that we hadn’t grown up. We hadn’t. We left New Orleans without ever once saying, We’re not roommates. We left Barbara Bush with a tub full of oatmeal, and forfeited our security deposit.

In the end, we lugged all of our furniture back to Enid’s house, leaving it padlocked in the garage surrounded by roach bait. This time, no one came to help us. We hauled back the things we’d acquired – boxes of books, lamps, the three-legged stool, the kitchen table – and kept only our summer clothes. Like kids packing off to camp. It was nearly dark when we finished, the light fading faster in Enid’s overgrown yard. To lock our stuff away, one of us had to go through the unlit garage and close the door from the inside.

“You go,” Lauren said, and I laughed.

“You afraid of ghosts?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Duh.”

“You forgot,” I said. “She’s not dead yet.”

When Lauren disappeared into the lightless interior, I made wooing sounds anyway because thinking of ghosts was easier than thinking of nursing homes. Easier than beating our heads against the wall of this history, the questions nobody would answer. Easier than asking, again, what happened here? How did things go so wrong?

Enid wouldn’t have liked me. She didn’t like anyone, really, or so I was told. But I liked her. I found myself taking her side, imagining we were on the same team. Outsiders in this family. Misunderstood.

What I refused to consider – what I refuse, still, in a way – was that she was just crazy. That Al and the others were right. She was sick. Trapped. Not so much a mystery as a stock tragedy.

But they lied about me. They knew I was no roommate. Who’s to say they’re not lying about her?

When Lauren got sick, years later, I would feel no fondness toward her illness. There would be no romanticizing its deadening effect. Her depression was all-encompassing; it consumed her whole body, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to make it better. She went to doctors, ended up in the hospital. I got mad: at her, at her friends and family, at the doctors, at the sheer terror that this was not something that she, or I, or anyone else, could fix.

~

During our last dinner as residents of New Orleans, I ordered boiled shrimp point blank. I shouldn’t have been surprised that my food came with its eyes and feelers and legs still attached. I was still a tourist, after all. Where I was from, shrimp came peeled and de-tailed, looking more vegetable than animal.

I pushed the corpses around my plate, thinking no one would notice if I didn’t eat.

After a few minutes, without saying anything, Lauren’s Granny reached over and began peeling my shrimp, her quick fingers stripping away face and tail, dropping the meat in front of me. One, two, three, and only then did I realize she wasn’t eating off my plate. She was doing this for me. I ate one. Then I leaned over and whispered, “Thank you.” She kept peeling.

Lauren was talking about Enid’s house, telling the story of how I’d scared her in the garage. Everyone beamed, drinking in her words, laughing into their drinks.

“It’s weird, huh?” Al said of the house.

“What’s going to happen to it?” I asked, imagining a renovation, an inventory of all the stuff. A massive clean-up.

“We’ll tear it down,” he said. “Build some rental property.” He said it without emotion. He’d spent his adult life making order out of numbers, decoding tax documents that no one else could understand. He was thinking now in terms of quantity. How much to tear it down. How much to build something else in its place.

“What about the stuff inside?”

He half-smiled at me, bemused. His question was not a question. “You like that junk.”

I smiled back, baffled. How could he not see it? How could he not be in love with all of it?

“You promise to call me before you do this, so I can come back a last time,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Y’all’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t know how the destruction of houses went. I was from Orlando, so I imagined wrecking balls. Cartoonish. One thwack and Enid’s house would lie on its side, the contents spilling out the windows. Buried in itself. I imagined the wad of money stashed somewhere for safe-keeping, collapsing with the bureau or sofa or mattress, growing old and brown with time, turning, finally, to dust.


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