Eleanor knows the house is empty before she opens her eyes. The air in her bedroom is so humid she thinks the world outside must be covered with water. The levee must have burst. The waves snuck in while she was sleeping and now the house is afloat and drifting south, rocking gently in the current, headed out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The ceiling fan sounds just like the chop of helicopter blades of the rescue party looking for survivors. Is that the sound of distant shouts, a siren wailing? They’ll never find her here.
Elle rolls out of bed and goes to the window. The glass is warm to the touch. Outside, the plastic Mardi Gras beads glitter in the branches of the enormous oak. The ancient tree is dressed up for the parade in all her valuables, standing there with her arms outstretched to the sky. A woman jogs down the grassy median of St. Charles Avenue, ponytail bouncing to the beat of the tolling church bell. The kids who used to board streetcars and school buses are probably all sleeping in. It’s almost July, after all, it should be summer vacation, but she has twenty minutes to get ready to meet Robin at the gate.
In her moms’ room, Elle lingers, touching things. She tries on a pair of Lang’s sunglasses and presses her face into the silk Japanese kimono hanging on the back of the door before she hurries to the bathroom to brush her teeth and splash her face with water. Maybe they’ll have a real summer vacation after Deep Water goes to theaters in December. They could go somewhere tropical like Costa Rica or Bali and play together in the waves.
The wooden boards creak underfoot as she walks down the stairs and through the hollow rooms downstairs. The house feels like it is crumbling around her, slowly and poetically; if she sat long enough on the chintz chaise in the parlor she would see moss spread across the upholstery and ferns poke their fiddleheads out from the widening cracks in the walls. She would soon be covered in a fine white film of plaster drifting down, down from the twenty foot ceiling. In her mind’s eye, the house is slowly sinking into a warm green puddle. Ghosts in white linen grip doorjambs or clutch ornate brocade and watch her with feeble interest.
On the kitchen table there’s a bowl of cold oatmeal and a note from Lang. Lang hasn’t been home much since Rosemary said she wasn’t coming back, that there was too much work to do at home and the heat in New Orleans was like a tapeworm in her soul. Lang said she was being a bit melodramatic, wasn’t she? To which Rosemary replied that not everybody grew up in Australia and speaking of self-centered, why should they all have to drop everything and come to New Orleans just to sit in an empty house? Lang said that it would be different if Rosemary was painting and Rosemary said that that was another good reason to stay in Los Angeles. Rosemary had wanted to bring Eleanor with her but Eleanor had balked: they just got here and she’s not done studying New Orleans yet and besides, Lang needs someone to keep her company.
So now Eleanor eats her breakfast facing the guilty-sounding note signed with a stupid-looking smiley face drawn in a heart: Elle, don’t eat without me tonight, I’m bringing home something really, really good, some delicious morsel you haven’t tried yet. Or maybe I’ll take you out somewhere fancy—ask Robin for a recommendation. If I’m not home by 7:00, call my cell. Love, mom.
While she washes and dries her dish, Eleanor tells herself a story: This is my sunny kitchen, my porcelain bowl with blue flowers around the rim, my view of the myrtle tree and my Spanish moss. This is the house where I grew up, passed on to me down a long line of ancestors—those are their portraits hanging in the living room. I live alone but I like it this way, she tells herself.