untitled, by Valerie Reynolds (Center City Workshop)
The day after the fire, everyone came by to see how things were, to be counted. Laura threw away the brilliant hours of that fall Sunday curled face to the wall in a borrowed robe smelling of her sister. She'd closed the shutters on the opened windows in the back room overlooking her parent's garden. Her six-year old cried in the outer room where she'd been left thrashing in the straightjacket of her grandmother's lap. The kid wouldn't stop. She was keening like a trapped animal, panicky, sensing she'd totally lost all freedom.
Laura couldn't count on the child's not telling her father's sisters downstairs.
His sisters still wore summer dresses, printed pinks and yellows, bare calves. They murmured a little and swung their hips, backs erect with their casseroles into the kitchen where Laura's sister, Nan smiled the right words, marshaled the boxes of clothing nobody wanted into the too small house. Shirts and pants for him, things for the child, shoes a little worn, but not too much, last year's blouses.
Sophie's husband was the first to drop a check folded twice over on the white enameled table. Then Harry and Frank, seeing how they should, first shuffled out for a smoke in the yard where Laura could hear them conferring in a circle of men. The screen door banged, banged again. Feet scraped over steps, ground grit into linoleum. They dropped their checks on the pile, careful not to get them wet in the ice rings beside the glasses. Embarrassing to put out a bowl or basket, worse, to tuck it in Michaels pocket as his eldest sister, Marissa, had done, patting his cheek, demoting him to a bad child again. Touching aroused too many levels of meaning. The kitchen was humid with bourbon and beer, Grace's sausage and sauerkraut, Mattie's baked beans on the stove. Someone brought a ham, a cake with orange icing. Most of them loitered in the garden or on the porch for the required well-mannered length of time, before someone coughed and said he had other places to go. They avoided looking one another in the eye, least of all Michael, who'd gone from rich to foolish in a day, lost face, his uninsured house, everything he worked his life to get, his family's future forfeit, and most visibly, his marriage.
He hated them all for their charity, their circling, pecking off strips of flesh. Laura swore she'd go in rags before she'd wear their cast-offs, starve before swallowing I-told-you-so-food. The families split into her side and his. The child was set adrift. Laura made Michael face them without her, hands at his sides, shrunken in her fathers overlarge shirt and pants, the long belt looping down, red-faced at their goodness, knowing they would never look at him the same again, how nothing was freely given.
Running in grandmother's house. Running's not allowed. I'm almost eight. Was in the garden out back and now I'm running the length of this long narrow house with its plumbrown carpet. My mother and others are bright colors where I run out of space in the far front room. They look at me but I see only Father. He's been gone a long time, but he's here now. He blocks out the light of the windows behind him, light bounces off his shoulders and coat like god behind a cloud. I can't see him, only his shadow and the bright around him. There's nothing in my world but him. I'm running, running down a long brown road lined with flowers. Tall trees either side make a tunnel, wind whips yellow fields beyond. Birds fly at me all crazy, theyre beating the hell out of somewhere. Low, late sun blinds, dapples the path. Can't see ahead, just this bit of road, this dusty straight-as-an-arrow road that dirties my shoes, knees, gets into my mouth, turns the world dusky-no color, no one laughing now. I'm alone. Hear my breathing, chest screaming. Light's gone. Is it night? But it's day. Run. Keep running. Don't dare stop. Knees burn, slow me slower still, hunched running in molasses. I think I'm running. Am I still? Time's stopped? Time's stopped. I'm my father. It's he who's running, it's a story they tell, a family legend. Mine. His. How Mother didn't phone for help. How they held me down. It's me running for help down that endless brown road while our house burnt to the ground.