“As I said, I drove to the house around 5 p.m. and noticed nothing unusual.”
It had been at least ten years since I’d been there, for my mother’s funeral, and even then I could barely stomach it. Two days ago, when I steered my rental car onto the oil-stained cement driveway, a rusted blue Impala was backed into the driveway next door. Was the Impala’s missing front bumper unusual? Or that it reminded me of a toothless sneer?
Should I tell the detective how eerily quiet it was? No one sitting on an old sofa on their run-down porch, no one navigating uprooted sidewalks with their dog, and no kids hanging out on the street. Even as I approached the house, a thick layer of rotting autumn leaves silenced twigs breaking beneath my feet.
I squeezed my husband’s hand and reiterated that I didn’t recall seeing anyone. The truth only stretches so far—like a taut rubber band—before it snaps back to sting you. Avoidance. Vagueness. Brevity. Those are the tools of my husband’s trade. Even he, a defender of criminals, never wanted to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Forty years of marriage had taught me that.
I recalled kicking away a wet pile of circulars blocking the entrance. When I opened the door, spent cigarette smoke and stale air escaped. Dusk’s faint light seeped into the living room through parted drapes that had a gold-braided rope design—only the fabric’s folds made all the ropes appear broken.
I turned on a light and sank into the beige velour couch and stared at my recently deceased stepfather’s tan leather recliner. Random cracks lined the seat and stuffing poked out, the color of pus from an open wound.
My husband had been right. I should have paid someone to empty the house and sell it for us. How dare my stepfather think I ever would have wanted it! I should have left at once. But, no, I lingered, still trying to make sense of what had happened. At some point, as I looked around the ochre-painted room with its flattened brown shag carpeting, I imagined my life caught in an old sepia photograph and realized it’s not just the person inside the photo who tells the story, it’s also about who is missing. And there were signs of my drunken mother everywhere. Tacky motel-style artwork. Riverboat-casino coasters. Stained white rings on the cocktail table like overlapping colliding orbits. Had that been hers and my stepfather’s orbit interlocked by a gravitational pull so strong nothing and no one—not even I, her daughter—could ever come between them?
I didn’t share those thoughts with the detective or mention the plastic flower pot with dried strawflowers sticking out from disintegrating green styrofoam. How strange that these papery stiff orange and yellow flowers had been my mother’s favorite. There was nothing delicate about them. Or had that been the point? An unwed mother in a provincial town admiring this flower’s defiant strength. But several of her dried flower-heads were missing, leaving only short sticks like unlucky picks of the draw.
When I told the detective about the stacks of newspapers spread across the dining room table, I recalled staring at those abandoned headlines, thinking of my own abandonment. How could a mother—my mother—abandon her six-year-old child?
My husband, Adam, who wears indignation on his sleeve, launched into reminding the detective that these newspapers were the combustible material for a fire.
“It was an old house with old wiring,” Adam blasted. “Why aren’t you looking into that?”
“That possibility is being investigated, Mr. Wilson, but so is arson.”
“Does it matter? We’re not filing an insurance claim,” Adam said.
“Oh? And why is that?” the detective asked.
“Because we don’t care about that house. Now, do I need to act as my wife’s lawyer instead of her husband? Why don’t you believe her?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t, Mr. Wilson.”
“You didn’t say you did.”
“Arson is a federal crime, and I need your wife to continue telling me what she remembers. Mrs. Wilson?”
What about the crime of abandoning a child? I thought.
I told the detective I’d opened the door to what had been my bedroom, but I didn’t tell him that the room was still painted pink. Was it left as a reminder of what was, with the twin bed’s bare mattress pushed up against the corner? Or punishment for what could never be, what with the dusty oak dresser with cartoon lamb decals shoved beside it? Cracks in the wall ran up and down in crooked lines like a series of dead-end roads. Was that my life or my mother’s?
I remembered pulling back the vinyl shade and staring out that bedroom window, but looking for what? The detective asked if I’d seen anyone on the street or heard anything. How could I tell him I’d seen my warm breath fog the cold window and then vanish as if I’d never been there? Or that I heard the streetlight’s noisy electric buzz like prolonged static between radio stations before someone finally adjusts the signals? But this wasn’t what he was after. No one wanted to hear this.
I didn’t tell him that, before making a cup of tea in the kitchen, I stood outside my parent’s bedroom. A brown and yellow crocheted throw couldn’t disguise the lumpiness of the old bed. A pair of haphazardly arranged men’s maroon slippers remained, as if the man who owned them would soon be back. But I had nothing more to fear.
“And you had to light the stove with a match?” the detective asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I nodded and told him that after pouring my tea, I sat on the back steps to sip and think. Only four patches of cement marked where my swing set had been.
“Mrs. Wilson, please, I need you to think hard. Close your eyes. Are you sure there wasn’t anyone in the neighbor’s backyard? Take your time.”
I closed my eyes. I saw myself, a little girl of six, swinging, happy, my skirt lifted and filled by summer’s wind. Then I saw that same six-year-old trudge into the kitchen with fall’s wet leaves stuck beneath her shoes, tugging on her mother’s apron, crying that she wanted her and not her new stepfather to read her a bedtime story. I opened my eyes.
“I don’t know. It was dark. I don’t remember. I don’t remember seeing any kids. There might have been. Might have been kids. Out. Somewhere.” Some things are best not remembered. No. Some things need to be obliterated.
“Would you rather come back tomorrow?”
“No, I need this to be over.” I needed everything to be over. Wind, outside the police station, kicked up and rain pelted the roof.
“When you reentered the house, you said you made yourself a second cup of tea. Are you sure you didn’t accidentally leave the gas on?”
“No, detective,” I said, sitting straighter; my back rigid. “I didn’t accidentally leave the gas on.”
An accident happened on our way back from the casino. That’s what my mother had said, what the hospital said, and what the police who took my mother’s license away said. But my Christian grandparents called it divine intervention. That night I moved in with them, not knowing my mother would never want me back.
I took my purse and set it in my lap readying to leave. Hadn’t I endured enough? My mother never believed me when I told her what my stepfather had done. My grandmother never believed me when I said my mother loved me. So I replaced needing love with needing no one at all. My husband never believed me when I claimed I was fine. But I am. Fine. Finally. Fuck what this detective believes.
“Detective, why don’t you ask me a question I can answer?”
“Am I happy?”
“Am I glad that house burnt down? Happy everything was destroyed? Because I am. And if I saw someone in that god-forsaken, drug-infested neighborhood, and I could identify that person, I’d thank them. They did me a favor. That’s what both of you should have asked me from the start.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wilson.”
“I’m not,” I snapped with the anger of a struck match. I stood up to leave.
The detective’s eyes squinted for a second—as if dubious of what he was seeing—before focusing intently on me and then Adam, contemplating, perhaps, the one question he hadn’t directly asked. But before the detective could voice his thoughts, Adam rose, announced we were going, and wrapped his bear-hugging arm around me.
The detective observed us a moment longer—the folder open on his desk—and said, “I’ll be in touch.”
But there would be nothing more to say. A house can’t tell its story when its memories lay in a pile of ash.
Once outside the precinct’s heavy metal doors, Adam bent down to whisper, “I just want you to know it’s okay if you did it. You can tell me.” Then he covered my shoulders with his trench coat to protect me. But I shrugged it off; the rain had stopped.
Sylvia Schwartz’s short stories and poetry have been chosen by online literary magazines not only in the U.S. where she is from but in publications originating in Spain, India, and Canada demonstrating the universal appeal of her writing. One of her stories was featured in Edify Fiction’s “Best of the Best” edition. Other publications include Bull & Cross; The Airgonaut; Savant-Garde; The Write Launch; The Vignette Review; Bold + Italic; and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. Sylvia studied literary fiction at The Writers Studio and One Story in New York. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and can be reached at www.sylviaschwartz.com or @aivlys99.