Personal Essays

Accidental Cairns, Mount Savage

Natural disasters have a senseless mode of destruction—earthquakes and floods don’t care about what they wreck. But what if nature seems to be deliberately trying to erase your history?

I was invited, as a contributing writer for The Morning News, to attend the opening of a new show at the Museum of Sex. But the story needed a hook, because sex without context is kind of boring. I wrote Rosecrans Baldwin, one of the editors at TMN, to ask for advice. “Take your mom,” he replied, and that seemed right.

Wilma was game—”I’m always interested to see things like that,” she said over the phone from her home in Mount Savage, Md. She’d wanted to come for a visit anyway. So we planned for her to take Amtrak up for the weekend and attend, with me, “Vamps & Virgins: The Evolution of American Pinup Photography, 1860-1960.”

Perhaps nature did not want such an unholy essay to be written, because, two days before she was due to visit, a massive flood rose up from a Mount Savage creekbed and tore through my mother’s small two-story house.

“I don’t think I can come up to the city,” she said.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“It’s . . . I can’t even tell you. I mean, I just moved here a few months ago, and now this.”

“I know,” I said. Moving to Mount Savage was supposed to have been the start of her retirement.

The corollary to her canceling was that I should go down to help. This was the second flood in only a few weeks. The last one had dumped thousands of gallons of water into her basement, and my brother and his family had gone down to Mount Savage to do the cleanup. This flood, I knew, was mine. I am a lazy man but a dutiful one so the next day—I worked for myself, and had a flexible schedule—I dragged myself down on the train to Cumberland and waited for her to pick me up.

The town was a mess. A car had been picked up and was resting against a tree with its door open; its driver, my mother explained, had been caught in the flood and climbed on top of the roof of the car to get above water, with her dog in her arms. The dog was wrenched out of her hands, pulled away to be drowned. My mother had been forced to seek dry ground on a neighbor’s elevated driveway. The water had left piles of boulders in odd places by the side of the road, or in front yards. They were accidental cairns, memorializing something that only the flood (which was now gone and could not be asked) had known.

We went down into the basement to scope out the problem. Mud covered everything, inches deep. The water that had coursed through the basement five feet deep (one fathom!) had been as thick as soup and had left thick filth in every drawer, on ever shelf, in the spines of books, in the back of the toilet, in the crevices under the sink, on the top of chairs. Apparently the mud had been a foot deep the day before, but the county had sent out a team of reform school boys with brooms, and these boys had swept a few tons of the stuff out of the door. It was odd to imagine these boys, in state-provided jeans, pushing the mess out of the sloped basement entrance.

I looked at my mother. The events had made her tired and fragile. I looked around me to see nearly infinite filth. This was going to be a terrible weekend.

“Mom, what I want,” I said, shoes sinking into the slickness, “is to go and get a six pack, so that maybe when I’m doing this tomorrow I can drink a beer.” I am not much of a drinker—booze sits in my fridge for months, forgotten—but standing in the midst of that acre of grime, I knew that tomorrow I’d want alcohol as a medicine, probably starting at around 10 a.m.

“I don’t know about that,” said my mother, in whom the dour Puritan tendrils of East Coast Protestantism long ago took firm root. “I don’t know if I want you to drink beer.”

“There’s no harm in it,” I said. “I’m going to have a lot of work to do.”

“But you don’t need it,” she said.

“No,” I said. “If you mean, am I an alcoholic, then no, I’m not.”

“Well, if you don’t need it, then there’s no reason to go get it.”

I grew up sitting in corners like that one.

The next morning I began in earnest; I had two days to get things to a point where a 60-something woman could manage it herself. It was boring, bad labor. An entire lifetime’s worth of bric-a-brac—books, photos, a violin, doll heads, a bread maker—had been lifted from their places and tossed around wildly. My tool of choice was a five-foot pole with a metal-and-rubber strip at the end, a giant squeegee that I could use to push the mud out of the door. I pushed, and more mud raced in to fill the absence. Scrapbooks had come undone in the rush of water, and so as I pushed my scraper across the floor a face would peer up from the mud, and it would be my father at 40, or my grandfather holding up a just-caught fish. Once or twice it was my own face peering up at me from the oleaginous slop. It was like wading through the devil’s vomit. I needed a drink.

We moved appliances into the sun, until the backyard looked like a pathetic garage sale.

My mother might have been washed straight to the Atlantic. A more sensitive man might be horrified at the thought, but I had a vision of her on a small raft, torrents carrying her into the distance, off to tell the dolphins they can’t have a goddamn beer.One of my mother’s friends, an older man who lived a few houses away, came by to help fix the washing machine. My mother was flirting with him, a horrifying sight, so I looked away and stuck to my scraping (since the flood they have been a couple, and good for them, I am very happy, there you go, but at the time the last thing I wanted was to watch geriatric love bloom amidst the stink of sulphurous creekbed assrot).

I took a break, and one of my mother’s neighbors stopped by with food. “Tell Paul about the pigs,” my mother said.

The woman nodded and said, well, her caged pigs were nearly carried away during the rush of water. They were lifted up in their cages by the raging torrent. But they swam as hard as they could, their snouts barely out of the water, and they survived.

Hero pigs! I thought. Unsinkable pigs with seven highly effective habits, getting things done! Give them ribbons, and rub their snouts!

“We’re butchering them next week,” said my mother’s friend.

I went back to my scraping. Working one corner, I came across my own belongings—my high school yearbook swollen three times its regular size, mud inserted between the pages, all the sentimental farewells lost for good. Books I’d collected during a wandering adolescence in West Chester, Pa., were reduced to pulpy masses. Millions of formerly distinct words were now smeared together and meaningless.

I threw dozens, hundreds of books away. I threw away photographs of women standing in front of picnic tables and tea saucers; I threw away a copy of a play written by my father, and a ceramic monkey. I threw away a suitcase that had been filled with leaves brought in by the flood. And I thought, if the rushing water had been one foot higher, my mother might have been washed straight to the Atlantic. A more sensitive man might be horrified at the thought, but I had a vision of her on a small raft, torrents carrying her into the distance, off to tell the dolphins that they can’t have a goddamn beer.

On the second morning, Sunday, I worked steadily until my mother began screaming. I found her sitting outside in a big mound of sloppy dirt, weeping. She had fallen. I helped her up and she embraced me for a long moment and wept. I’d known this moment was coming, and I wanted to be anywhere else but picking my mother up out of the mud. I said soothing, calm words and felt sick and exhausted. She hadn’t hurt her ankle. When she was settled I went back to the basement and to my scraper. There was progress now. You could see the floor. The appliances were in the yard. I had opened the shelves and emptied them onto the floor, then washed them down; I had reached deep into the toilet and pulled out the flashlight batteries that the flood had decided to leave there.

I did all this until I was so tired that I simply sat on the porch caked in mud, belly out, mouth open, squinting at the passing cars. They slowed down to look at me.


* * *

According to the state of Maryland, the mud contained a significant portion of human feces, and I needed a shot for tuberculosis. Because I was uninsured, and cannot simply have a TB shot when it suits me, we went to the state clinic and I lied about my address, and my mother and I got the shot one after another from a pleasant nurse.

My mother dropped me off, newly inoculated, at the sad little Cumberland, Md. train station. The train was late, giving me six hours to think, and as I reflected on the mud I felt a genuine empathy for my mother, for whom months of work waited to get the basement back to normal. But then again, she seemed to have found love. Tired of thinking, I ate a sandwich.

I arrived in D.C., and as I’d suspected my connecting train had long since left for New York. I begged my way onto the next train leaving, an Acela, and sighed in relief when I was able to board and throw my bag into the storage shelf above my seat. This trip was over. I reclined into my sculpted blue seat and was just about to go to the café car to get a drink when the train hit and killed a man.

According to the apologetic conductor, who came over the intercom, someone had used the Acela, pride of Amtrak, to end their life. There were, as always, things to deal with, police to call. It would all be dealt with as efficiently as possible and they were sorry for the delay.

Thirty minutes passed and then the whining began. My fellow riders seemed to think that a half-hour was about the maximum stoppage a suicide merited; sure, you should stop the train, peel off the corpse from the wheels, bag it up, say a few words, etc—but, after that is done the grieving should come to an end and we should move on with our lives, preferably to Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, and finally New York City Penn Station. Tragedy should at least attempt to be convenient.

I tried for a moment to calculate the portion of the kinetic energy of the train that was me, sitting in my blue chair, so that I could estimate my culpability in the man’s death. But it was clearly such a small percentage that I could shrug off the guilt, in the same way I shrug off the travails of sweatshop laborers because I only buy a few of their clothes, or my part of global warming as I fly in airplanes.

After a few hours they brought up another train on the next track and placed a bridge between the two trains, which we hundred-or-so Acela passengers crossed, and this final train brought me to New York without incident. I took the subway home, stumbling in at 3 a.m., exhausted. I greeted the cat and sat on the edge of the bed in contemplation, wondering how in God’s name I was going to make my way through Tuesday after the last few days. I had a meeting in six hours, at a bank. I should have gone to bed immediately and tried to ward off the next day’s exhaustion, but instead I opened the fridge and found a can of cheap American macrobrew, and its cool aluminum was a comfort to my hands.


TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford