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excerpt > Nancy McCabe > Following Disasters


Back before she got really sick, Aunt Beth said she was going to haunt me someday.

Later, after her face turned moony, her movements slow, and her words edged like the little serrations on a butter knife, seeming harmless at first but able to cut deep, it scared me to visit her.

Sometimes, back then, alone with her, I felt trapped by panic and then guilt. I watched the clock until my mother came to pick me up.

I haven’t been back here since I was thirteen, and whenever I’ve tried to picture it I envision a house overshadowed by illness and impending death, creaky, dark, and gloomy in my imagination, a huge, disintegrating, creepy-chilly old place. It turns out that it’s nothing like I’ve been picturing, though I recognize it instantly when I pull up into the driveway and turn off the car engine and sit in the sudden silence, feeling as if the puttering engine and the music from the radio are still roaring in my ears. Although the siding is cracked and paint is peeling from the trim, the house has not, in the eight years since I’ve been here, been overtaken by bats or cobwebs. Ceiling beams haven’t fallen, the roof doesn’t sag, the floor hasn’t rotted, and the doors don’t slam shut by themselves.

As I nudge open the front door, no moans emerge from the attic. I imagine that I’m met by a salty, citrusy whiff of Jiffy-Pop popcorn and lemon floor wax mixed with honeysuckle and fresh-mown grass. But it turns out that those smells are just memories, because they disappear as fast as they come. I find myself in a plain old front room, couches worn, stuffing bulging out, the air a little stale, like no one passed through here at all during the weeks my aunt was in the hospital. The honeysuckle off the porch is months away from forming bell-shaped flowers. The grass in the yard pokes up stiff and brown where it isn’t smothered by piles of leaves, and under my feet, the scuffed wood floors are marred by dark spots where plants have leaked.

Sunlight spills through the bay windows and across the oak floor, filtered by lace curtains into delicate patterns. I touch the brittle, yellowing curtains, expecting them to crumble to dust. They’ve always reminded me of doilies on old ladies’ coffee tables. They made my aunt seem old, much older than she was. I never noticed the way the curtains cast those wavery weaves of light and shadow across the floor, shifting like the ghost of water.

With my sleeve, I wipe the window of a dusty glass case. Dolls stare out of wide lashless eyes in cracked porcelain and withered cornhusk and molded plastic faces. Once a year, Aunt Beth used to take out these dolls to wash them and comb their hair. I thought it was fun when I was six. I found it disturbing when I was thirteen.

“She wanted a little girl so bad,” my mother said once. “It’s like those dolls are her children.”

No, I almost said. It’s like I’m her child. But I didn’t say it, because there was a time when it was true, and saying it would have hurt my mother’s feelings.

Now, standing there in the watery sunlight, I think suddenly: what if I decide to live here? What if I don’t have to live in a dorm room with some roommate who leaves her underwear on the floor and plays loud music and sneaks in beer and boyfriends?

Upstairs is a room I never want to enter again. When the furnace shudders on, it sounds like it’s struggling for its last breath. On the front staircase wallpaper, pink flowers are as big as watermelons. The house is eighty years old. There are a million arguments against living in a house whose upkeep I have no clue how I would pay for. But as I climb up the stairs to the landing window seat, rainbows relocate from the wine-red carpet to the tongue of my sneaker, light colored by the panels of stained and beveled glass. I pace down the stairs and back into the front room, where I’m once again tattooed by lacy patterns. I stand in the middle of the seductive warmth, feeling drowsy, like I never want to move again, like I could lie down in the light and go to sleep right there.

Instead I wander through the downstairs rooms. In the dining room, layers of dust have turned the surfaces of the table and china cabinet gray. The back rooms, the kitchen and my aunt’s bedroom, are a mess, counters and tables heaped with newspapers still in their orange plastic wrap, half-read books face down, magazines and catalogues towering in rickety stacks, bathrobes, socks, and sweatpants strewn across the floor. A sock still holds the shape of my aunt’s foot, the bulge of her ankle. Shivering in a sudden cold breeze, I open a thick diary on the nightstand. It has a little gold lock, but taped to it is a little gold key, and I open it to find pages pasted into the front with a child’s large, awkward handwriting. As I turn the pages, the writing shrinks into tiny, faded, curling letters I have trouble deciphering. I never knew that my aunt kept a journal. I pick up the bound book underneath it. It’s empty. Blank pages, waiting for a life to be written on them.


Aunt Beth had been braiding my hair the day she said it: “When I’m gone, I’ll just have to become a ghost and haunt you. I’ll have to make sure your life is in order before I’ll be able to go anywhere.”

That had sounded kind of nice when I was ten or eleven, like she was planning to be my guardian angel. Now it just seems freaky. What if leaving me her house is my aunt’s way of keeping her eye on me beyond the grave?

Since high school graduation three years ago, up until yesterday, I’ve been following disasters. That’s what I say at parties when anyone asks me what I do: I say, “I follow disasters.” My last job was in Clementine, Oklahoma. A few months ago, a tornado cut through the town, plucking a coop full of chickens: the air pressure had popped their feathers right out of their skin. In the tornado’s aftermath, I was sent there to help set up a makeshift claims office in a boarded-up old downtown building. The insurance company put up emergency staff at a motel I thought of as The Unset, since the bulbs in one S had burned out.

The life I’ve lived since graduation has made me feel independent and adventurous, but all of a sudden, earlier this week, I was restless, tired of following disasters, fires and floods and tornadoes that swept into towns with the rattle and shriek of the freight trains that still pass through in the night. I’d arrived in Clementine while people were still sifting through the rubble of their homes, salvaging remnants of their lives: a dirty, torn teddy bear, a photograph album ruined by rain. The first few weeks, I drove past ditches bridged by fallen trees, a front door, an overturned couch, past a baby crib and a kitchen drawer snagged by tree limbs. At work I answered phones, typed claim forms, sorted work orders, and filed papers. I thought I loved it, being in the middle of activity that gave me an adrenaline rush and put things in perspective and made me feel like I was contributing something to society and all that stuff. I loved it, but then, suddenly, yesterday, I didn’t.

Maybe my dissatisfaction had been creeping up gradually; I’d been a little distracted the last few weeks. Adelaide, the office manager, was always shaking her head at my notations. Like when I wrote in a message “Old Wine Glass and Beer” instead of “Old Line Glass and Mirror.” Or, on another one, instead of “These were figured with a slide rule,” “These were figured with a sly drool.” Maybe I should have seen the change coming.

Yesterday, my twenty-first birthday, I drove to work past neat islands of empty foundations, porch steps that led nowhere, a roof tipped on the ground. All the debris had long since been cleared away, furniture and stray two-by-fours, bathtubs and pots and pans, shingles and shreds of clothing and blankets. Now, here and there, saws whirred and hammers rang and construction workers on ladders peered through new frames. Leaves loosened themselves from branches in the crisp air that smelled like woodsmoke, and as the town rebuilt itself and normal life resumed, I should have felt proud and inspired.

But all I remember is the edgy feeling that came from seemingly nowhere, settling on me when I returned to the office after a late lunch at the Chat 'n Chew Café, where I’d eaten too many grilled cheeses and chipped beefs. I remember this, specifically, that it was 3:00 p.m., because Adelaide pursed her lips as she battered her typewriter keys in machine gun spurts. Normally she wore wire-rimmed glasses on a necklace chain, but when she typed, she propped them on her nose, which made her look judgmental. Which made me feel defensive, so I looked at my watch, planning to point out that I’d only been gone an hour.

But Adelaide didn’t say anything, and that’s the moment I felt cold air sweep over me, even though it was 100 degrees outside and the AC unit pumping away in the office window never really seemed to cool the room. With that mysterious cold air came a feeling of sadness, restlessness, vague anxiety and desolation, the way I sometimes feel at twilight. I found myself picturing those plucked chickens, exposed and defenseless. Out of nowhere, all I wanted was to flee Clementine, Oklahoma— and my own skin. Just go somewhere else, anywhere. Maybe that’s a normal feeling when you’ve just turned twenty-one and have lived a makeshift life on your own for so long. It’s just that it happened so suddenly. It wasn’t until later that I found out that my aunt had taken her last breath at 3:00 p.m.


“You have a message,” Adelaide said . She passed me a slip of paper. Her hand was loaded with jewelry, a record of her life, a half-carat diamond engagement ring, a wedding band, and a thick gold ring sparkling with the birthstones of four children.

I took the paper without looking at it. My own fingers felt empty, too light. I stuffed the pink message slip into my pocket, assuming it was from my boss in St. Louis, telling me that it was time for me to pack up. The office had quieted down, the phone not ringing as much, most of the office staff and engineers and adjustors having already departed. Local contractors had taken over, plasterers and carpenters and electricians and plumbers from Clementine and surrounding counties settling into their work.

“I’m done for today,” I called to Adelaide. I expected her to frown at me, coming back from lunch and then leaving abruptly like that, but she just waved a ringed hand, her glasses dropping down around her neck, so that my last sight of her was full of flashing metal.

In my car, a 1976 orange AMC Hornet with the roof cloth drooping down, so it felt like I was driving in a tent, I smoothed out the message. “RE: house title,” Adelaide had written. The number had a Wichita area code. A wrong number, I thought, but back at my musty room at the Unset, I dialed the phone on the nightstand.

It was my aunt’s attorney, and that’s how I found out. That, to keep the house out of probate, she’d signed it and its contents over to me, to be mine on my twenty-first birthday. That today it was mine, and that, since his office had left the message earlier in the afternoon, he’d tried to contact her only to find out that she’d just died.


Remembering all of this gives me chills as I mechanically start picking up, dumping newspapers in garbage bags, moving dishes from the counter rack and drainer to the cabinets, opening the round-shouldered freezer that turns my breath to ghosts and wrenching free bags of peas and corn and frozen pizza in wrinkled plastic. I’ve filled two bags when I stop, overwhelmed. I still can’t quite comprehend that my aunt is gone. It was one thing for her to be absent from my life. It’s another, completely incomprehensible thing for her to be absent from the world.

Dusk is falling. I’m hungry, inundated by details and decisions, and I don’t have the energy to go out for food. Instead, I creep upstairs to the little room that used to be mine. It’s as tidy as a motel room, the sunbonnet girl quilt smooth on the twin bed, the white chest stacked with rattling, empty drawers. I lie down and stare at the ceiling. The wind blows, shutters creaking.

The last five years I’ve lived in a boarding school dorm and then, working in makeshift insurance disaster claims offices, a series of cheap motels, with thudding footsteps overhead and the faint reek of cigarettes and bursts of speech and then long silences, the rhythms of phone conversations through the wall. Sometimes my supervisor or some other coworker called to check on me and invite me to dinner and try to pressure me to come live in their guest rooms, but no matter how lonely and scared I was, I didn’t want to become someone else’s guest, a kid again when I’d taken care of myself for so long. I couldn’t imagine staying in my supervisor’s house with her husband and four kids and their Cabbage Patch dolls, riding in their van with its annoying “Baby on Board” sticker.

Now, I lie here remembering summers when I was in elementary school and junior high and everything felt safe and I read or drew for hours, without any schedule or responsibilities. I imagine returning to a life like that, painting all morning, reading my aunt’s journals, starting my own, planting a garden, writing down the story of how I got here and figuring out my life.

I drift off to sleep and dream about old houses with endless mazes of rooms. And then I wake in the dark, feeling lonely but still peaceful, like the house has cast a spell on me. Everything seems clear to me.

I’m not going to sell the house.

I’m going to live here.


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Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood (Missouri 2014). She has also published several dozen stories and essays in literary magazines as well as articles in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Learn more about Following Disasters.

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