Shattered Wig #28

Shattered Wig #28
Coming In November!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Old, White House by Adam Shutz

Old, White House

The house was on fire. I hadn’t brushed my teeth. Mother rushed me up the stairs like it was time for bed. We were followed by grey tails. When she turned in the bedroom doorway, an apse of smoke curved around her and fell as she bent to touch the side of my face. The smoke was from a dream someone else was having. She forced her mouth into a smile. Her eyes wouldn’t do the same.

“Sometimes, things—” She closed her eyes. “It’s just—”

Below us, we could hear the crystal sounds of the fire, the wooden beams of the house expanding and cracking.
“Let’s get your clothes.”

In big armfuls mother grabbed everything inside the dresser drawers and threw them on the bed. The walls of the room murmured. They brought in voices from outside the house, voices which started as shouts on the front lawn and ended as the shadows of sounds humming up the wires behind the walls. Then the air left the room and the color left with it. Across the bed, mother busied herself to leave. The sun behind her, the low light, she appeared translucent in front of the window.

One by one she picked from the pile of clothes a shirt, a pair of pants, folded them on her chest, and neatly placed them in the suitcase open on the bed. When she finally snapped it closed, we were the only things in the room not lost to smoke.

“We’re not coming out yet. I’m not coming out.” Mother tripped as she made her way to the bay window. She had begun to shut her eyes.

I wasn’t there. Mother didn’t want them to know I was there. “You’ll have to wait. It ain’t time,” which she said more to herself than to the men outside, who were grumbling at the walls of our house. From the center of the living room, away from the window–mother warned me from the window, told me, “Nothing good will come of looking”–I saw fifty men if there were five, each identical to the next, faces melting in rage, raising their arms in violent fits, threatening the house with shotguns and signs and rocks.

And, there, just behind them, in a line near the crumbling road, were their women, wives and daughters, old and young, motionless and entranced by the violent gestures of the men: a calm, flat sea behind the breaking waves. I wanted to say that I knew at least a couple of the men from town, but couldn’t. They were lost in fits, blurred as if in passing.

Mother was hunched over. She was breathing heavy from one room to the next, passing with arms full—albums and frames and fetishes and fruit—going one way, then carrying another pile, going the other. Outside, the men became dull in the fading sun. Their outlines only hinted at by the light of the fire spreading from the garage to the roof and down the sides of our house.

It was nearing dark. I was hungry. When we first heard the shots on the front lawn, mother was in the kitchen making dinner. The sounds of the gun must have made her remember something. She said, “You’re father… he’ll be late tonight. We’ll have to eat without him.” Then the fire started.

She picked up the suitcase, said I’d have to wait in the cellar for father, smiled again, and looked to her feet for things that had fallen. The smell of supper’s chili was still in the air. Before we made it to the basement steps, the sofa was in flames.

​“Hold your breath,” mother said, as she placed me and my suitcase in with the furnace and handed me a wet cloth to hold to my mouth. When I did she looked angry, grabbed the cloth and tied it around my head.

When mother said goodbye and closed the door to the closet, I laid my head against the cold furnace to hear the cracking of the fire through the air ducts. Inside, there was a language to the embers, a chattering logic of the wind and the wood. I tried to make out what they had to say. When she left I listened to her, to mother, to her steps, their simple rhythm like something on high melting and dripping onto a hollow log. As she reached the top, she turned on the cellar light. The closet remained dark. I watched the smoke seep under the door, a slow, grey cloud lit with an orange center of light. Somewhere in the cloud the planet began to fall away.

​I remember someone saying, “It’s a kind of boy.” That was the first thing I heard.

A man in a fireman’s hat pushed the metal and wooden debris off me. They were black like I was black and everything was wet with ash. Above the man in the hardhat I could see clear through the ceiling, past the smoke slated with light, to a sky bright and clear and blue. ​

Another man in a hardhat, but in a different uniform, pulled me from the furnace and carried me through the cellar door to the driveway. Most of the house was gone. What was left was crooked. Around the driveway were vans and trucks and many more men in hardhats, some in uniforms, others in jeans. To each side of the driveway was a small crowd, smaller and far less menacing than the day before. They wore different faces. They stood different and acted different and were hushed. When the crowd noticed me in the hardhatted man’s arms, what little sound there was fell silent. The scene was softly alive with the grumbling sounds of engines and the terminal type of whisper. One in the crowd pointed and looked surprised. He said something to the man next to him who turned and darkened his face. I cowered into the hardhatted man’s chest and tried to rid myself of his dark look.

I was in the open air. I wanted to be back were my mother put me to be safe, back where it was dark and sleepy and cool against the metal furnace. I didn’t want the crowd to see that I couldn’t hide as well as my mother wanted. ​

The hardhatted man placed me in a gurney in the back of an ambulance, strung a plastic mask around my head, gave me a deep, knotted look, then closed the door. Through the ambulance walls, I could hear the muffled voices of the crowd grow and speculate. They spoke about me, about my house, about my mother, but what they meant I couldn’t tell. I tried to hide myself in the corner of the gurney because I couldn’t tell. After a moment, the ambulance’s engine started. The siren bleeped and stopped and we began to move. From the small window in the ambulance’s back door, I could see a wisp of smoke rising from my house into the sky, over the heads of the crowd, over the vans in the driveway and the fire trucks and police cars, over the road and mailboxes and the neighbors’ houses, over the trees and the sign for Last Stop Tavern, over the overpass and the cars on the overpass, over more trees and roofs and over the green ridges of the hills. Over the hospital gate and doctors’ faces and smiling nurses. Over the television I couldn’t turn off and the machines that beeped and hinted I was alive. Over the grey-suited man who took me from the hospital a week later. Over Belington. Over West Virginia. Over Clair who spoke in a soft voice and kept me in the old, white house for years after. Over the woman that pretended to be my mother. Over my mother. Over the noise of the crowd that gathered at night on the lawn of the old, white house.

Adam Shutz is the editor of "Artichoke Haircut." Adam Shutz once had a dog. Adam Shutz once collected snow. Adam Shutz now collects water and snow and sometimes ice. He doesn't like to collect water, that happens by default. Tragic.

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