Fiction: ‘Fire Safety’ and ‘The Little Matchless Woman’

February 19, 2018 Fiction , POETRY / FICTION

Sharon McCutcheon photo

 

By

Lenore Weiss

 

 

 

Fire Safety

 

 

He couldn’t get the fertilizer stink out of his nostrils. The sacks he delivered were made from liquid raw sewage brewed locally in Bakersfield. The odor seeped into his clothing and scalp. What girl would want to go out with him smelling like he did, especially someone like Jenny Thurmond?

Rhonda was slicing lemons. “Try washing with them.”

She could act like a witch in metal braces, especially at night when he sat on her bed. Still, Dan was desperate enough to try anything. In the shower, he squeezed lemon juice on a sudsy cloth. It stung his skin. He scrubbed. The water was steamy. He scrubbed and rinsed. Then he put on his clothes. She sat on the living room couch reading a fashion magazine. At sixteen, she was three years his junior. Her hair was tied back with a purple scrunchie, a mark of the Purple Ponytails, the all-girl band that played at her high school.

Rhonda sniffed her brother. “Better. You don’t stink!”

“Hey, Rhonda.”

“Hay is for horses.”

“Quit it. Do you know a girl named Jenny? Jenny Thurmond?”

She picked up a guitar magazine and admired the new Gibsons. “Where’d you meet her?”

“On my delivery route.”

She got another magazine and rubbed perfume from a pull-out page onto her wrist. “Jenny’s in my Spanish class. We sit next to each other.”

“You’re lying.”

“Really? I happen to know that Jenny volunteers at the animal shelter. I think you’d make a great pair. You both smell.”

“Actually, she did tell me that… I mean that she volunteers. I met her at Millie’s restaurant. Told me she’d lunch with her mother for the first time in years.”

Their own mother had died when Rhonda was two. Afterward, she and Dan had sat in bed for months reading comic books. Rhonda couldn’t remember anything about her, except the way she smelled. She held up a picture of a model wearing jeans with a white cut-off blouse and high boots. “D’you think this would look good on me?”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know…Look, I was wondering…”

“Or do you like this one better?” She held up another page, one of a vampire, actually a girl twirling around in a black lined cape. “It would look better lined in purple. That would be hot for the Ponytails.”

“Zip it up. D’you have Jenny’s phone number? Her email?”

“I don’t know. Maybe if you played drums in my band this weekend. Gerry has the flu.”

“You want me to play in a girl band?”

“You used to play with me all the time.”

It was one of the big events of the school year. The Fire Chief was going to hand out awards for an essay contest. Tables were set up outside the auditorium where local vendors were selling stuff; the PTA was pushing bowls of Five-Alarm Chile and slices of Red Hot Red Velvet Cake.

Being that it was such a big event, the Ponytails decided to dye their hair purple. The drum kit was set up behind orange plexiglass. Good. Dan would be hidden.

Saturday afternoon, the auditorium was packed. The principal asked everyone to raise their hand if they were sitting next to an open seat. It was time for the Purple Ponytails to play their song, Little Mr. Hot Spot. Rhonda introduced the band. “We have a special guest tonight. Take a bow; it’s my brother, Dan.”

Dan stood up in his purple ponytail. Everyone laughed.  He recognized Jenny Thurmond sitting in the front row.

The principal got up and asked the audience to give the Purple Ponytails a hand. “Aren’t they great folks? Let’s hope Little Mr. Hot Spot doesn’t show up in our homes. He’d burn down the whole place. Isn’t that right girls?” The band members waved and gave their purple ponytails another shake before going off stage. Dan knew the song was written for the guitar player’s ex-boyfriend. Dan followed them off stage with his honorary ponytail. “And now I’d like to introduce Fire Chief Dennis Williams who is here today to announce the award for the best essay in the Mr. Hot Spot contest. Mr. Williams, will you please join me on stage.”

A silver-haired African American man in a dark blue suit with brass buttons and the whitest shirt Dan had ever seen stood up not too far from where Dan’s father was sitting. The Fire Chief made his way to the microphone, his sleeves adorned in gold braids and a silver badge pinned to his jacket. He wore a white cap with the same braid trim. The Chief flashed a Colgate-white smile and shook the principal’s hand while a reporter from the Bakersfield Citizen kneeled below the stage and took photographs.

“Thank you, Principal Dealey. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, grandmothers and grandfathers; all you teachers and families who have come out today to celebrate Fire Safety month. Since we began this project five years ago, we’ve cut down on the number of fires by twenty-five percent. What does that mean? That means more lives saved and more homes protected. You look like a group who understands what steps to take when there’s a fire—very large ones.” Everyone laughed. “But before you leave today, I’d like you to take a look at our special display of fire extinguishers and fire alarms—think about adding another level of safety to your home, that is, if you haven’t already. Now I am honored to announce the winner of the Mr. Hot Spot contest.” Everyone leaned slightly forward. Chief Williams tore open an envelope. “The winner…Jenny Thurmond.”

Dan stood backstage with the band where Rhonda was trying to style his hair.

“Quit it, Rhonda. You’re bothering me.”

“Let’s give this little lady a hand. On behalf of the Bakersfield Fire Department, I’d like to award you one hundred dollars and hope you can use it to further your education.”

She stepped up to the microphone, eyes stuck on her paper and read about a German shepherd named Brad who’d rescued his owner from a house fire.

“We need a Brad in our department,” said Chief Williams, who shook her hand and invited everyone to climb into the No. 1 fire truck that was parked outside the school. “Don’t forget to stop by the PTA tables for a slice of that Red Hot Red Velvet Cake. It’s going fast.”

People stopped to tell Jenny how much they appreciated her story and wished her good luck. They heard how she loved animals, such a shame about all those endangered species of birds fluttering to the ground, and how they enjoyed visiting the zoo in San Diego. Had she ever been there? No? She had to go. Maybe her mother and father could take her. They had wonderful exhibits. What a busy girl she was and good luck again.

Rhonda watched from the back of the auditorium. Her brother drifted away. She hated Jenny, probably the reason her brother had stopped coming to her bed at night.

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Matchless Woman

 

 

She lived behind the cyclone fence a few blocks from the freeway headed to Silicon Valley, hers an intertidal zone with big box stores like Home Depot and a 24-Hour Fitness where cars skidded past platoons of day-workers in hoodies who waited for the call. Glad she didn’t have to stand there. Who were they anyway, standing in heaps of garbage on the sidewalk in front of McDonald’s? Near her tent was a Shell Gas station that charged fifteen cents more than the High Street Gas & Food on the other side of the overpass selling burritos for $3.95. She didn’t have a car, walked or took the bus, knew how to turn a five-dollar bill into several meals at the Dollar Store on International Boulevard where she used a microwave near the bathroom to heat up containers of Top Ramen, got herself a free cup of coffee even though the manager said he was sick of her smelling up the place. Whenever she saw Tatiana behind the grill, she always washed at the Mexican restaurant. Blue and orange doors sat on the corner like a kid who was showing off. Quickly entered the store and head toward the bathroom that wasn’t clean, but so what, always something else floating in the sink. On her way out, she grabbed a handful of matchbooks. Took the ones with red chili peppers holding hands on the front cover. At night they talked about where they’d come from, small towns where the sun melted into copper wire. “Digame más,” she’d say, and light up another cigarette. Sometimes she talked to the chili peppers in English, but they didn’t understand her. Give me a light, she asked. A light. What is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? The matches were wet. They sputtered back; there was only one left and she saved it for morning. The Little Matchless Woman would have to return to the restaurant and hope that Tatiana was working the grill. How had the matches gotten wet? Dampness had seeped inside her. Night-time she heard the AmTrak on its way to Sacramento, looked over the fence to see cloudy faces. The people never saw her, quickly passed by in a blur of noses and mouths. Sometimes she counted them in her language. High in the sky, the matchless woman watched jets take off from the airport, but today she saw a bulldozer as big as an elephant, remembered when her aunt brought her to the zoo after her mother had died. An elephant reached into her hand to vacuum a peanut from her fingers. Inside the fence, the bulldozer knocked down everything; a man with a blank face told her to leave. Using her one good match, she set fire to the place. Took off like an airplane down a run-way headed home.

 

 

 

 

 

Lenore Weiss

Last year I received my MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University where I won the Clark-Gross Award (Paul La Farge) and the Robert Browning Dramatic Monologue contest. My writing has been published online and in print journals. Poetry books include Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island (West End Press, 2012) Two Places (Kelsay Books, 2014) and The Golem (Hadassa Word Press, 2017). My blog resides at www.lenoreweiss.com.

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