APPARENTLY THERE'S A racket going on in the Dustbowl—it will cost Mom a $1600 deposit to get a water line hooked up to her recently purchased Oklahoma home. $1600 for someone to flip a switch. The former homeowners didn’t pay their bill for several months prior to eviction, and the water co-op used their deposit for the funds. When Mom discovers this, she’s furious, indignant. “Can you believe this?” she says to me over the phone. “These people are nuts. They won’t even let me pay it off in installments on the bill. They need it all up front, they say, because people just quit paying. Who would do that?”
I hold my tongue. Mom moved from California to Oklahoma six months ago without even trying to sell her former place, a mobile home she’d sank time and money into in a quiet, prim community. She sold off some of her things, gave much of it away, and just left the house for foreclosure. This isn’t the first home that she has left. She walked away from my childhood home when I was eight. Ten years later she did the same with the two-story place near the San Andreas Fault. She’s done this with cars and furniture too. Anything that she just doesn’t feel like dealing with, she lets go.
I’ve lived in my own home for six years, and sometimes wake panicked in the middle of the night, shaking my husband awake to assure me we’ve mailed the mortgage for the month. I have never paid more than a $100 deposit for any utility. Georgia is like that; the cost of living is usually cheaper here than places Mom has lived. But $1600 is exorbitant. This isn’t Sudan.
“It’s going to be at least November, maybe December, before I can afford it,” she says, her voice trailing off. “That’s when my retirement starts and the savings I’ve got I need to hold on to until then.” The solution, one of her husband’s design, is to place fifty-five-gallon garbage cans around the house and collect rain water. In Oklahoma. “We’ll just bring the water in and fill the toilets, wash dishes. I’ll buy bottled water to drink and cook with.”
“I’m not coming to see you until November, maybe December,” I say. I’ve recently attended a Foundation for Sustainable Development lecture and images of volunteers squatting over holes flash through my head, Mom’s face superimposed on their shoulders. The dread of fatal bacteria, which could easily be eradicated with clean water and washed hands, begins to multiply in my imagination like the real thing would in a petri dish.
“Of course not,” Mom says. “You’ve got to work. Adam’s got work. Ellie’s in daycare.”
And I let her think that’s what I mean, that I can’t possibly see her until the holidays.
Really, her entire situation makes my ears burn—the job she left early, the house she abandoned, the man who’s been anchored to her for over a decade who’s little more than another child.
Mom has always had an affinity for John Denver, but I never thought she’d end up living like a turn of the twentieth century West Virginian. Her newfound hometown, Beggs—so many puns, so little time—is south of Tulsa. Her place is tucked into a lakeside neighborhood so small she boasts, “If you didn’t know where to turn off the highway you wouldn’t know it was there.” Just beyond the scrub pine and tumbleweeds is a neatly planned subdivision of mobile homes with manicured lawns and neat trees. The kind of place that would get invaded by aliens or zombies. Or a cult. A few dozen bodies who drank the Kool-Aid at dawn awaiting the end of the world. The kinds of houses that are warmed by fireplaces and space heaters. The kind of place where I can easily picture her husband, an Okie native. But not my mother, queen of the strip mall, who’s never lived outside of a two minute radius of a Del Taco.
When it becomes apparent that it’s not going to rain, Mom and Tom place all six of their drums in their truck and drive to Beggs proper where they fill them at the fire station. They aren’t alone. A few weeks ago there was a line of cars down Main Street, all waiting with barrels in the beds of trucks. The way Mom tells it, a young man approached their truck and began to chat them up about their water situation.
“I went down there, you know, to that water company,” Tom told the young man. “I says, ‘You can’t be serious.’ I says, ‘We’re not living in the Sahara. This is America,’ I says.” He laughed violently, coughed at the end of it—residual effects of having smoked most of his life—and his rotund, three hundred pound frame squeezed against the steering wheel. “I tried to make them laugh about it, but the more they stared at me, the more pissed I got. By the end of it, they were telling me that we had to pay seventeen hundred, not sixteen. So I told them. ‘Screw you,’ I says.”
Mom turned red, holding her criticism of Tom’s childish behavior for the confines of their shared dwelling. The young man sympathized, then introduced himself as the mayor of their little town.
“He can’t be any older than you,” Mom tells me later. “I mean, he’s maybe thirty-five. I didn’t know someone so young could even be elected.” Mom can’t be bothered with the fact that most people my age couldn’t possibly screw up the world any more than her atomic-bomb generation. She’s got enough to worry about. “According to the mayor,” she says the word as if he’s allegedly the mayor, or perhaps he just plays one on television. “We’re not the only people on our side of town in this situation. If we’d bought on the other side of the highway we’d have city water. We’re just outside the limits, so this water co-op can do whatever they want. He and the city council can’t do anything about it. We’re screwed.”
I don’t ask her why she didn’t find this out before the move. Or why she let Tom go down to the co-op office when she knew he’d act like a petulant child. My skin crawls from her rehashing of the histrionic event. My mind dives briefly into a conversation I had with Mom just after they got married. “Why don’t you go out anymore?” I said, home from college for a laundry weekend, and sitting with her on the sofa eating popcorn and watching Lifetime.
“None of my friends like Tom,” she said, not looking away from the television.
“So go alone.”
“That’s not how marriage works, honey.”
I knew Mom wanted to retire, but had five more years on her sentence at the Post Office. Offered an early bonus if she left, she took it, and six months later moved. “I didn’t take the health insurance,” she said after she’d processed her paperwork. “So I’m gonna to get all of my prescriptions and new glasses and Tom’s getting his dental finished.” Mom has a chronic disease—sarcoidosis—that could potentially kill her if she gets a chest cold.
“Mom, really? Isn’t that stupid? You need to be able to see a doctor.”
“I’ve got enough medicine saved up. You know I never finish a bottle of pills. I won’t be around sick people. Besides, with Obama’s new health care coming I’ll be able to afford it.”
I should’ve asked her if she knew how long—if ever—universal health care would come to her tiny town. I didn’t dare, considering they’re still without running water.
I’m the same age Mom was when she was forced into single-motherhood. She acted responsibly and found a well-paying position. Not once did she ever spend money frivolously; she didn’t have it. When her mother dragged us to Las Vegas, Mom acted annoyed, spent her time standing behind Grandma while she gambled, never having any money of her own to put into the machines. But when she had to move to the Southern California coast for her job, she left me behind. Just like she left the house. I went to live with Grandma and didn’t return to Mom’s house until I was almost eighteen, nearly ready to leave again for college. I try not to remember her leaving me behind, insist that water she’s living without is the reason I haven’t visited her since her move.
I tell Adam that if I make it to seventy-five I’m going to start shooting heroin and driving a motorcycle. Really all I want to do is retire to Florida and stick my corns in the warm sand, read, and nap while I fry my sagging, paper-thin skin. This will be the carefree end I deserve after a lifetime of frugality and restraint. I can see myself bloated and wearing a swimsuit akin to a mu-mu, roasting in the heat and splendor of a life lived responsibly.
In the article “Not All Americans Have Enough Access to Water” published in May 2010, Katti Gray writes, “Roughly two million people […] have insufficient water or no running water at all.” In his 2004 article “Still Living Without the Basics in the 21st Century: Documenting the Extremes of the Water Crisis in the U.S.” Stephen Gasteyer, PhD says, “The 2000 census reveals that more than 1.7 million people in the U.S., 670,986 households, still lack the basic plumbing facilities that most of us have come to take for granted.” He goes on to mention it’s the “poorest of the poor” living in “sparsely populated rural areas or in densely populated urban areas” who’re suffering the most.
I compose an email to Mom and include these statistics, along with links for the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a not-for-profit organization which brings quality drinking water to those without it, namely the poor and/or poorly situated. Mom fits both of these descriptions.
I wait a week to call and see if RCAP is any help. “Oh, yeah, I saw all that,” she says, not even trying to hide her apathy.
“I thought it looked helpful,” I say.
“I haven’t had a chance to look at it.”
I can’t help but think of myself in her situation—I’d be on the phone every day, or emailing anyone I thought could help. I’d go down to the mayor’s office, see if the people without water could band together and change the co-op policy. Or supplant them entirely and turn to Tulsa for help. Really, though, the snob in me keeps telling myself I would’ve never moved blindly into her position, that it was irresponsible and irrational.
Mom can’t renovate her new place, can’t rip out the carpet she’s sure is full of biting dust mites. “The cats are clawing themselves to death and I’ve got red bumps all over my ankles,” she tells me during our weekly phone conversations. Since she’s retired, though, those conversations take place every other day. She calls, talks for ten minutes, then zones out when I talk. I can hear the television through the receiver, or her fingers typing on a keyboard—she’s discovered Farmville—but her responses to what I say seem to echo from Mars. Yet she won’t just tell me goodbye. She holds me on the phone until I have to say, “I gotta go.” Then she sighs, as if I’m abandoning her.
Today I do some research for her bug infestation. I find several powders and sprays for the treatment of carpet mites. I call her to share my findings. “I got the cats some flea drops at Wal-Mart,” she says. “I think it’s just fleas.”
“I thought you couldn’t see them,” I say.
“Well, no. But you can’t really see fleas.”
“I can. They’re black.”
“These are small red bugs,” she says, distant, not really listening. “The flea medicine is helping.”
“That’s what carpet bugs look like. Are you still getting bit? They can infest your clothes, furniture, even mattresses. You’ll have to throw everything out.” This may sway her, since among the few pieces of furniture she brought from California are her mattress and box springs.
“I’ll look into these sites,” she says. “What I really wanna do is rip up the carpet.”
“You could just rent a cleaner and steam it. That works too.”
“But that costs money, and right now I ain’t got it.” She sighs. “We’re gonna go to town tomorrow. We may look for one.”
May? May? I thought they were getting eaten alive. I add the bugs to the growing list of reasons I will not visit Mom in her new home.
“We want to go to the casino, though,” she says.
Ah, yes, The Casino. Her new post-retirement pastime. Conveniently, she’s moved to a state with a casino on every corner. No money for pest control or water, but plenty for the slots and Tom’s blackjack fetish. Her rationale is that they break even. They each bring fifty dollars and leave with it or more—twenty and thirty dollar winnings at a time. They never win big. If they did, they’d have water.
A month later, Mom seems to be more content with her move. She’s found a job working with Dish Network, in customer service. Her training has gone well and she’s won a GPS in an office raffle. With the current unemployment rate in the U.S. at 9% I’m proud and surprised she found something so quickly. The paychecks will help with the water ransom, and may even contribute to some furniture, paint, and flooring for the house. Now that the weather has begun to turn cool, Mom’s discovered she’ll have to replace the central heat and air.
“How many hours a week are you working?” I ask.
“Right now it’s full time,” she says, her voice distant. Again, she’s called me to share the news but has quickly bored herself with the conversation. “But once the training is done I’m gonna ask for part time. I can’t earn more than fourteen thousand in a year or I’ll lose part of my retirement.”
“So they’ve got part-time slots open?”
“No. If they don’t, I’ll just make my fourteen thousand and quit.”
Great. More walking away. I’ve worked at the same little college for seven years and although I could make more elsewhere, I stay because I don’t want the headache of relocating my life. “What about Tom?” I say, trying not to sound sangfroid. “Is he looking for a job?”
“We both went down for interviews but they only called me.”
“So what else is he looking for?”
“We’re talking about it.” Her I’m-going-to-pretend-we’re-talking-about-something-else tone begins, and I know Tom’s in the same room. “Right now, though, I’ll have to work up to Thanksgiving, so we might not see each other.”
“That’s okay,” I say.
“Maybe you can come here.”
I close my eyes, rub my temples, and before I can utter my usual response, my requirement for basic plumbing, she changes the subject by saying, “Tom thinks we can fix this place enough to sell it, then buy another place and a motor home.”
“Really,” I say, thinking that Mom’s pushing sixty-five and probably should just relax in her retirement instead of house-flipping.
“Yeah. We could probably make about thirty thousand by just putting another eight into it.”
I don’t let on, but I’m confused. She can’t muster $1700, but $8000 is somehow plausible. Besides, the point of moving to The Middle of Nowhere Oklahoma was to be closer to her family. It wasn’t to find a part-time job that will generate enough revenue to replace cabinets and carpets for a quick resale. “Don’t you like your place?” I say.
“Well, yeah. But no one has come to visit us yet.”
“That’s unfair,” I say. “You don’t have running water. We haven’t had the time.”
“We have water,” she says, completely ignoring the second, truthful, part of my statement.
“I mean real water,” I say.
Sure what Mom’s doing is green, admirable even. Living off the grid like a dejected hippie. I could talk to her about Rick Bass, Janisse Ray, Walden, but she’d miss all of it. She’s always been a leech of natural resources, the generation of the microwave and TV dinner, great seas of diet soda. Her green effort, her accidental reduction of her carbon footprint, is irrelevant because she had no choice. As if her life was an episode of Frontier House.
I called her as December neared, and asked again about the co-op ransom. “I’m not even gonna go there,” she said. Once more her voice took on the I’m-going-to-pretend-we’re-talking-about-something-else tone. Tom was in the same room and they must’ve quarreled about this very issue recently.
So of course I pressed her. “But isn’t that the plan? Do you have a water heater?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve got one. Tom just needs to get it hooked up to the collection system and we need a pump to get that water into the house.”
I picture the house webbed with PVC pipe racing toward the fifty-five gallon garbage cans spaced at ten-foot intervals all around the house, like boons.
I should be proud of her, since people in well-to-do neighborhoods are installing similar water systems. I know people with huge water tanks in their yards that collect rain and recycle it to water their plants and trees. They have solar panels on their roofs for heating and electricity. They don’t eat meat. And they certainly don’t bathe in the water they collect in the yard. Something about it screams unsanitary. The same screaming voice tells me to take a shower after walking through rain or playing in the snow. I can’t help imagining rainwater rolling down a dirty rooftop, through a gutter littered with dead fly carcasses, into pipes, and out the shower spigot. The last thing I need on a visit to my mother’s house is a shower of insects and questionable grime.
She tells me she just spent $1700 on hardwood flooring for her new place. “Why didn’t you take that and get your water hooked up?” I say. “Isn’t that exactly how much you needed?”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Mom said.
Tom has somehow convinced her that his “water collection system” will actually work in the long run. Yeah. I can see Mom right now—mid-January when everything has frozen, and she’s out on the deck chipping away at the barrels, warming pipes with a hairdryer. Still, I have to believe Mom knows what she’s doing—waiting for this system to fail so she can get water hooked up properly. The alternative, that she’s becoming more and more irresponsible, is too much to bear.
Every time we talk, I remind her that I’m not visiting until she has proper water. And I feel a little worse about myself each time. Because, really, the water is not the issue.
So we enter a stand-still, neither one of us willing to compromise, to fold and pay the ransom. Geographically, we’re closer than we’ve been in over a decade. But we’re so far way from each other in every other respect that I fear it will take more than $1700 of new pipes and clear running water to wash away our differences.
J.W. Young’s essays have been anthologized by Random House, Dzanc Books, and Pinchback Press. Her work has also appeared in various print and online journals including "Memoir (and)," "The Apple Valley Review," and "Damselfly Press." She lives in Georgia where she teaches writing at Middle Georgia College.
“I left California in my twentieth year because of the state's preference for the patio over the front porch. The first great porch I encountered was in Oxford, Mississippi at Square Books. I spent many afternoons on that porch sipping tea, smoking, and talking writing with my mentor Barry Hannah.”