Where There’s Smoke

by Kathleen

All winter Sarah and her two-year old Nicky met no one. Finding a place in New York, commuting distance to her husband’s new job but almost affordable, had taken patience and resolve. The first floor of the Victorian house with sketchy wiring and crisscrossing shadows was empty. As was the neighborhood, not counting huge men walking snarling dogs.

In March, a family that looked like theirs moved downstairs. Sarah immediately assumed that she and the woman Joanna would be constant friends; their toddlers, Nicky and the girl Heather, would play together. Without thinking twice, Sarah invited the new family to dinner.

The husbands talked about sports. Joanna didn’t want her daughter eating roasted chicken. Or dairy or sugar. Joanna was still nursing Heather, who didn’t protest.

During the next few weeks, the mothers and toddlers got together more days than not. Sarah let the kids jump on the beds. “You really don’t care about things,” Joanna said. She objected, too, to the way Sarah answered the toddlers’ questions. “You talk and talk and then admit you don’t know. It’s like you want them to feel insecure.”

But Nicky and Heather enjoyed finger-painting and running around the second-floor apartment. Sarah didn’t mind if they messed it up. Joanna had just arranged her place—better if they played upstairs.

Soon Joanna noticed Sarah was pregnant: “How warped.”

“I wasn’t asking your opinion.” Sarah opened the door, issuing her guests out. Thereafter, they avoided each other. Except—whenever Sarah and her son tromped upstairs, Joanna yelled obscenities after them.

Sarah didn’t try explaining that to Nicky. “All we can do is tip-toe.”

Silly, maybe, but Sarah kept smelling smoke.

Her husband said, “Look out the window.” The neighbors were barbequing in the backyard.

Then the yelling stopped and so did Sarah’s hallucinations about smoke rising from the stairwell. One day Joanna stopped them leaving. Nicky pushed past Joanna’s door, calling, “Hi Heather!”

Joanna wanted to give people voice lessons. Was Sarah interested? “A hundred an hour.”

“I can’t. But it’s great you’re starting a business.”

Nicky was pulling books from Joanna’s bookcase. Big now and anxious, Sarah went to stop him, but Heather passed by, an overall strap flapping. Instinctively, Sarah bent to fix it and Joanna hissed, “Don’t touch her.”

Turning, Sarah hurried Nicky out, while Joanna screamed about “the invasiveness…buttoning Heather’s clothes.”

After that, they pretended each other didn’t exist. But now Sarah imagined Joanna setting fire to the building. She closed her eyes and the stairs flared and splintered.

Returning from the hospital, newborn Molly strapped in the front beside Peter driving, Sarah and Nicky in the back, they saw fire trucks. Sirens were sounding, ash falling through crisscrossing lights, firefighters shouting. Peter drove onto the sidewalk and got out. Then he ran back. “They’re pretty sure no one was inside.”


6 comments:

Rufus said...

I had a neighbor like that once, but he didn't burn down the place.
Nice spooky story.
Where happened to the family--did they go stay in a homeless shelter?

Paul Burman said...

As always, there's some very sharp observations in here, Kathleen---those tight points of separation where we sense the views and values are uncomfortably at odds. Nice.

Stella said...

I think I missed a step back there: why did Joanna dislike Sarah? Just random craziness?

kathleenmaher said...

Rufus, I think they found a motel that served like a half-way house. Sarah didn't take her two babies to anywhere dangerous. But they didn't have family or friends; there was clearly a rough phase ahead.

Paul, thanks. Those tight points can cause more friction than you'd expect.

Stella, some of that's a mystery. She disdained Sarah's whole approach but took advantage of her, too. If Sarah hadn't been so lonely, she might have gleaned some of Joanna's craziness before offering friendship, which only invited a target for rancor.

Stella said...

Ahh. Sorry for being dense...

kathleenmaher said...

Stella, you weren't being dense. I was--trying to make it clear in so few words.
Then, too, if you've never clashed with someone who is an unavoidable menace, this wouldn't make sense. When stressed-out people live in close quarters, however, arson committed by a disgruntled neighbor it more common than you might suppose.
This week I'm putting together something pleasant, risking sweetness.