I can only blame my grandfather. “You like antiques,” he’d told me, smiling. He didn’t smile often, so that should have clued me in. He also loved a bargain; to the point of renting the discounted room, that smelled of everything used, if the motel clerk knocked the price down so low that most people would smell a rat. Literally.
“You need somewhere to live for a while,” he’d added. “I won’t even charge you rent till you get back on your feet.” Being my own grandfather, most people would see this as generosity. In my present, stressful circumstances, I think I convinced myself of this as well.
“You like antiques,” I mimicked, as I re-tied the kerchief around my sweating hairline. I checked it in the hallway mirror, which returned a distorted, musty outline of my strained features. I heard Sam yelling outside, but he was calling his brothers to play in the mud pile. It was better than the potentially-poisonous foliage.
I sighed. I would clean the bathroom first.
The bedrooms had made my skin crawl. Well, they’d made it feel like something was crawling on my skin. My hesitant inspection of the bathroom, safely conducted from the doorway, had the added sensation of my stomach reacting. I never could handle mold. That was one reason why I would sleep in the car over the discounted motel room option. Grandpa would say I’d get used to it, but I didn’t. The mold would grow in my mind the way it was surely growing inside the walls, entering the air sacs of my children’s lungs and poisoning them for life.
I not only smelled mold, I could see it. Someone, somewhere along the line (probably another victim of a well-meaning patriarchal relative) had installed more modern plumbing in this room and the kitchen. By the looks of things; that person had cleared the space needed for improvements, installed them, then left them victim to whatever time wished for decades. I assumed that was the reason for the water damage.
Browning spots, circled darkly then fading to the middle, were splashed around the crumbling plaster walls. The floor looked sound, at least. It was filthy like the rest of the house, but whole. There were probably creatures holing up under the sink cabinets, but we weren’t going to fall through to the basement.
I didn’t see the bathtub until I was brave enough to stick my head in farther. It sat very solidly against the door-wall, and the sight of it was the first time I considered a word like haunted. Then, of course, I told myself I was too old to feed my phobias and I’d watched too many scary movies about bathtubs (two, to be precise).
Whenever I saw a free-standing antique tub, I couldn’t help but hyperventilate a little. My mind would detach just slightly from the concrete world at hand and, instead, see hands groping the air above the too-deep water as a murderer shoved a helpless body down into the porcelain depths where no human had strength to prise the ancient stopper from the drain.
Laughing and yelling, the sounds of play, the sunlight bravely glancing in through bubbled glass, all helped to bring me back to the crusted, spotted ground on which the tub sat. “Just a tub,” I told myself. I kept telling myself.
This mantra sustained me through sweeping, dusting, bleaching, and scrubbing. It barely hummed when I first turned on the water, though. “It’s just rust,” I added, for good measure. I impatiently watched the dark liquid splash around the bathtub I’d just sanitized. “Just a tub. It’s just rust.” I told my mind to stop seeing what the water really resembled, even as I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder or around the room.
Maybe it would have helped me to know they didn’t like the bathroom, either.