Sunday Rumpus Fiction: Quietly the Flood


Leona was the best goddamn docent the preservation society had ever seen, but only because they hadn’t seen her lose her patience, which was happening now, while she was bringing up the rear, wondering what in god’s green earth was taking four people an hour to walk hardly a mile, it felt like they started the tour days ago. Did they not walk in Chicago? Where did these people come from?

Saturday two o’clock groups used to be chipper: excited camera-necked families, serious artists, rushing through the woods to spend as much time at the house before the next tour group interrupted and their time was over.

But this group would abruptly stop every now and then, fiddle with this or that on the trail, and then it was like they completely lost all understanding of what they were doing there in the first place, standing with vacant expressions until Leona pushed them onward.

The hike was no secret. The tour cost twenty bucks and was collected after the tourists were told about the walk, yet this group was surprised at how “long” it was taking. Leona guessed it was probably incredibly difficult to judge distance when you were always living in those high-rise loft condos, or whatever they were called.

High. Maybe these people were high. Even the kid with his mom, who knew, things were different now. Leona had read somewhere that there were children in Colorado smoking dope on playgrounds.

There were four of them: a strange looking young couple, disheveled, odd parts of their heads shaved, but wearing very nice glasses and expensive leather shoes. The guy’s beard was enormous. The girl wore a pointy knit hat—she looked like a garden gnome.

Then there was the kid with his mom. Parents dragged kids on tours because their parents did it to them, and so on, although this pair both seemed disinterested: the mom struggled with a price tag on a new visor, talking about something called a Groupon, while the kid walked with his arms hanging heavy at his sides, curly hair covering an unimpressed face. But Leona did not let these misfortunes overcome her. She had duties.

“So first,” she said at the start of the tour, “we’ll walk to the house, ‘cause that’s why you’re all here. We’ll spend time examining the perimeter, the exterior, discuss the dwelling in the modernist movement, and then, the thing I know you’re all waiting for: we will enter the house, where we do not allow photographs to be taken, shoes to be worn, or anything to be touched. Farnsworth,” she told them, spreading an arm around her and pointing to the house’s logo on her white docent polo, “is a living, breathing museum.”

During the hike, the couple would stop and pose in odd ways: the bearded guy picked a perfectly good leaf off a tree, and then stood in front of the trunk, holding the leaf, dead pan, like he was… sad? Then he let the girl take a picture of him with her phone, straight on.

The kid’s mom fell behind early. There was fresh mulch on the path, and she said, “this mulch stinks,” and then sat down on a bench and started fanning her neck with the ring of her shirt. After trying to help her understand that the house was literally around the corner and that there were no naturally occurring obstacles on the path, like bees, or quicksand, Leona had no choice but to leave her there.

The kid, what was he, twelve? thirteen? was then obligated to walk next to Leona through woods, not four feet away from a more direct gravel path. The trail took unnecessary dips and turns through the woods to give multiple views of the river, even though it looked the same all the way down. The trail didn’t make any sense, but the preservation society scoffed at the thought of paying visitors having to walk on the “service road”, which was for the “service automobile”, which was really just a golf cart.

“Why don’t we walk on that road?” the kid pointed.

“What’s your name?” Leona asked him. They navigated the useless twists and turns together, in the sun, the early spring fruit trees blooming, which Leona was sure to give Farnsworth an ephemeral feel.

“Maximiliano,” he said, and kicked a rock at a tree.

Leona had never heard this name before. “Really?”

“What do you mean, really?”

Leona silently garbled the letters in her cheeks but couldn’t quite grab them with her tongue. Pronouncing a visitor’s name was basic docentry. “Can’t I just call you Max?”

Now, the couple was walking into the woods, clearly off the path, and the girl with the funny hat was standing between birch trees, peering her head out from behind one, but looking very concerned, squinty, while the guy took photos of her. What were they doing? Was this the Instagram?

“Okay,” Max said, “but that’s not my name,” and then he walked off toward the house.

Leona wanted to shout, “Wait!” She had a whole spiel she did before the house came into view. When she first started volunteering, she had large tour groups that were pleased with a quick hike. Her guests would let Leona line them up, backwards, facing away from the house, so that after giving her introduction, the they’d all turn around to the quiet intensity of Farnsworth, simultaneously. Understandably, they might gasp a little. It was that arresting.

But that was not this tour group, nor any tour group she’d had in years.

By the time the three of them caught up with Max, he was already touching the house, his hands running over the white deck and the protruding cantilevers, key indicators of the modern architectural era, which were kind of important, kind of sacred, in ways not to be caressed by some kid’s hands.

The cantilevers made the house look like a hovering, glass cloud. Mies van der Rohe’s perfectly proportioned lines made up the first floating stanza of the house. A poem Leona knew by heart.

A poem that Max was now hitting with a stick.

“Hey!” Leona said. “Hey we are not at that part of the tour yet.”

They were not at that part of the tour yet. Max slouched back to the group, dragging his stick behind him. It used to be her tour groups would push each other out of the way to hear her.

“As you can see,” she said, “Farnsworth, named after it’s original owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, is defined by its ability to appear as if it’s levitating off the very ground we stand on.” She motioned, showing them the ground they stood on. “An expression of the times, the clean, white lines give movement,” she moved her hands in a horizontal way connoting movement, “The house suddenly appearing, crawling, out of the river and walking onto shore.” Hands everywhere.

The gnome girl interrupted Leona, and said, “It was probably trying to get away form that river. Jesus.” She waved her hands in front of her face after what was the first contribution she’d made to the group’s discussion. “It smells like fish.”

Of course it smelled like fish. Fish lived in rivers, underwater, where they didn’t take pictures of each other on their cell phones and then complain about getting wet.

“Can you say more on the crawling out of the river again, Eleanor?” The beard was typing on his phone.

“I thought her name was Lisa,” the gnome said.

“It’s Leona,” Max said, having no problem with her name.

“Sure thing,” Leona—not Eleanor or Lisa—said. “Mies designed the dwelling to be built as close to the river as possible. If it were anywhere else, lines would be lost. The river frames it.” She did a square thing like a frame with her hands. “Imagine, if you were standing over there, how it would look from afar. It would look like,” but she had no words or docent gestures to describe how it would look. She’d never been to the other side of the river. It wasn’t a part of the tour.

Leona moved on. “The floor to ceiling glass allows the house to be completely integrated with nature. Look, we can see right through it. The lack of opacity helps Farnsworth create a relationship with its surroundings. Nothing to hide. I bet it’d be pretty hard to play hide and seek in there, Max!”

“I don’t play hide and seek,” he said.

“Okay,” she said. “Well what do you want to be when you grow up?”

He looked around, looked at his hands. “A stick,” he said.

The beard laughed while the gnome took a picture of herself with the house behind her, peeking over her shoulder, like they were old pals. If anyone was old pals it was Leona and the house.

Was she friends with a house? Just last night she fell asleep in a chair watching Blue Planet and eating a Lean Cuisine Salisbury steak, which wasn’t so bad, except that when she woke up in the morning and the Salisbury part of the steak had formed a cold, jelly layer on top, she didn’t throw it out but instead ate her dinner for breakfast, which didn’t have to do with being friends with a house, per say, but conjured in Leona something like loneliness.

The gnome ran over to Leona with her phone. “There’s supposed to be a tree here?” The screen showed photos of Farnsworth repeating. She was googling images of the house that they were all standing directly in front of. Why not?

“There was,” Max said. “A maple. But the storms are worse than they used to be and branches kept falling in the house. It kept breaking the windows.”

“Well,” Leona said. “Sounds like maybe you should give us the tour.” She smiled and winked at him. She was suddenly overwhelmed with gladness for Max.

“But they chopped it down,” he said, and pointed to Leona, directly at the polo’s logo. “The Preservation did.”

The girl said, “Bummer.”

The beard guy, “They should have moved it.”

Leona: “The tree?”

The guy: “No,” and then, with great horror, Leona heard him say, “the house.”

There were no words for this, so Leona decided to let the house do the talking.

They followed her up the steps onto the attached porch. “Shoes can be left out here while we tour inside, of course you can also slide booties over your shoes, although I prefer shoes off myself, you never know.” She un-velcroed her sneakers, put on her white archival gloves while the couple went for the box of booties.

“I’ve seen heels poke through these booties before,” Leona said. “Just sayin’.”

“Do you want me to take my shoes off?” The girl asked.

“What? No. For heaven’s sakes, no. Please.”

Yes, please. Make yourself at home, Leona thought. It wasn’t like they were about to step into a pivotal Midwestern architectural artifact or anything. Her comfort should be top priority. Maybe she could take a nap on the furniture inside? Maybe take her little gnome hat off and kick back?

Below them stood Max. He hadn’t joined the group on the porch.

“Time to come up here, young man. It’s what you’ve been waiting for. Shoes off.” Was she supposed to boss him around? Was she now his babysitter?

He shook his head and stayed on the grass, leaning on his stick like a cane. “I’m not going in.”

Leona repeated her command, slowly.

“I’m not going in,” he said again. “I don’t want to go inside.”

“What do you mean you don’t want to go in? It’s why you pay for the guided tour,” she said.

Max sat down. “It’ll ruin it.”

Ruin it? “But you walked all the way out here.”

“It’s only a mile,” he said.

“Well your mother couldn’t do it, Max.” She said. The afternoon sun broke through low clouds.

“It’s Maximiliano,” he said.

“Whoever you are, you have to come in. I can’t leave you alone.”

“Where am I gonna go? There’s nowhere to hide.”

The gnome stood up and took a picture of him, alone, in the grass, and then said, “Can we go inside now?”

“Fine,” she said. “No pictures.” Leona lowered her head and opened the door to the rectangular house. She tried to let it overwhelm her. She tried to let the bright, clean space fix the tour.

“Consider,” she said to the couple, with hardly any of her usual pizzazz, “If this were your home. Complete fluidity with nature. Zero interference. Glass floor to ceiling. The trees are your wallpaper. The sun is your light. The time of day, your mood. Balance.”

“What’s wrong with the wood?” the girl asked. A teak wall stood in the middle of the house, hiding a bathroom, and it turned the rectangular floor plan into a square O. Some of the wood near the floor bubbled and puckered with black mold.

Leona took a deep breath. “As much research as Mies put into how high the water rose from the river, and even though he added five feet to that height, he could not see into the future. He could not foresee the strip malls, the suburbs with their roads, their chain restaurant parking lots. Rainwater collects on pavement quickly, whereas it used to have to sink slowly through the ground.”

Max sat outside still, looking at the house. It was very uncomfortable, having him watch from the outside. This wasn’t a show.

“Wait,” the husband said, “it floods? What do you do with the furniture?”

“Milk crates!” she said, to his scarce enthusiasm. They kept milk crates at the museum, her idea, and if there was a flood watch, they would paddle out to the house and lift all the furniture onto milk crates. “The water never gets higher than a few milk crates.”

“But it might some day,” the beard said. “I mean, that’s exactly what Mies thought, right? And doesn’t that take quite awhile? Are you even able to do that?” He looked at her, her white polo, her socks.

“It’s just the best way,” she said, and turned around.

To the gnome, he said, “what a waste,” but she wasn’t there. Leona hadn’t noticed that she’d disappeared behind the teak wall. She was probably doing another Instagram.

But then a toilet started flushing. The girl stepped out, on her phone.

Alarm spread across Leona’s face. “You can’t use the bathroom in here. What did I say? It’s a museum.” She held her white-gloved hands up. “This isn’t where you piss.”

“Whoa, lady,” she said. “It’s a bathroom,” and brushed past her.

Water started spreading out from under the door, seeping into the white carpet, trickling into the rivulets of the interior cantilevers, creeping toward the furniture. It was yellow and had chunks of rust, sludge, whatever had been lodged in the plumbing since long before Leona had given her first tour.

The couple stood in their beautiful shoes protected in white booties. Leona’s toes squished in the rising toilet water.

Over their shoulder, she looked through Farnsworth. Max’s stick was abandoned, alone in the grass.

“Where’s the kid?” she asked.

The beard shook his head, scoffing at the water, backing away from it while it seeped into priceless furniture, and said, “I cannot unsee this.”

Leona didn’t know what that meant, but she thought she had an idea, and she was pretty sure that he would, in fact probably very quickly, unsee this. He would probably forget about it on his way home, as soon as he hopped into his vegetable oil car, turned on his public radio, and combed his beard.

The last bit of patience drained out of Leona with the toilet. With her wet socks she splashed the couple with the dirty water, kicking it at them, soaking them, their phones, until they were sufficiently wet and Leona had no other option but to leave.

Max was in the river, fully clothed, filling his cheeks with water and then squirting it out between his lips.

“Isn’t it cold?” Leona asked, walking toward him in muddy socks.

“Duh,” he hollered.

Her feet were already wet, so Leona stepped into the river that smelled like fish.

The current drifted through her and pushed her away from the house, toward him, cold step by cold step, until she was standing with the water up to her waist. The couple came out of the house and took pictures with their phones of the strangers in river.

Max fanned his arms around him, making ripples. “From here,” he said to Leona, “the house kind of looks like a UFO about to land.”

“Or about to take off,” Leona said.

She lifted her feet off the pebble bottom of the river and used her white-gloved hands to make figure eights on the surface. Floating on her back, Leona tried to ignore the hundreds of different ways Farnsworth was being damaged due to her inability to properly docent. She couldn’t guide anymore. She couldn’t keep their attention. She couldn’t ignore the onslaught of her ineptitudes, so quietly the flood took her away.

Danielle Wilcox is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her short fiction has appeared in Goreyesque and Bird’s Thumb. She most recently served as the literary editor and co-founder of LDOC, a free photography and creative writing publication distributed on the Red Line trains of Chicago. She is from Michigan. More from this author →