Maplewood Shadows still smelled like fire hours after the Drummonds’ house burned down. The smoke had passed but the ash had not. Bits of it stirred when the wind blew. Helen Shoemaker had watched from her porch as the firefighters thumped down the blaze with foam; it took them hours to put it out. The flames had devoured the Drummonds’ walls. Heat had burned loose their eaves. Before the last licks died, her phone rang, summoning her to a women’s meeting. She put some cookies in to bake and applied her makeup, rubbing the soot of yesterday’s mascara from under her eyes.
On her way down the street to the meeting, she pressed her toes to the edge of the Drummonds’ property line. They were out of town, safe in Aruba, but she couldn’t cross the boundary. Her desire to approach felt ghoulish. The cindered house felt haunted. Day-haunted. Blown open by ghosts. The front door hung askew on its hinges. She continued walking, jittery, cookies shaking on her plate.
As she called to order the Post-Fire Action Committee, Sylvia Green, who lived next door to the Drummonds, told her eyewitness account to the mothers meeting in her kitchen. “I drew back the curtains just in time to see the top two floors of the house collapse into the basement,” she said, putting her coffee cup on the counter, freeing her hands so she could draw a picture of the destruction in the air. “Tricia’s room was so hot, you wouldn’t have believed it. I haven’t gotten Carol on the phone yet. The hotel says they’ll tell her to call.”
Helen used her spoon to wring out her tea bag, then placed it in the rim of her saucer. Plates of sweets sat untouched on the kitchen island. The women in this neighborhood never showed up empty-handed, but they demurred when offered baked goods. Slender ladies didn’t eat such things.
“We have to do something for the family,” one woman said. Rumor had it she’d been a lawyer before she married and had children. The strident tone of a criminal trial informed her conversations. “I’m talking food drive, school supplies, clothes. They’re coming back to nothing.”
“Oh, yes,” said another mother as she took minutes for the meeting. “Food drive… clothes drive.”
“Thank goodness they have what they have in their suitcases,” Tina Roberts said. She lived across the street from Helen, but Helen hadn’t had the nerve to introduce herself yet. She’d seen her last week running through the sprinkler with her boys, body still stretch-marked from her last pregnancy, but she’d been wearing a two-piece bathing suit anyway. She had such darling cheeks, almost fever-pink, as though she’d swallowed the sun and it was heating her from the inside.
It wasn’t so much that their eyes met as that they were both, separately, regarding each other. In a room full of mothers used to checking tasks off to-do lists, Helen felt for a moment as though she were departing from the meeting’s schedule. She glanced down at her light blue culottes, her pink polo, her dopey round-toed sandals, and glanced back up, surprised to find Tina still looking at her.
Wind stirred the eyelet curtains in Sylvia’s kitchen. Red and white gingham towels hung over the handle of the oven. In the window, the late afternoon sun caught the curtains and glowed green and blue like dragonflies.
“I think they need comfort items. Pretty, soft things to help them feel secure again,” Helen said.
“What do I write down?” the secretary asked.
“Helen, was it? Let’s put you down for bedding,” Sylvia said, motioning to the note-taker to take this down. “That’s ‘soft.’ ”
“Maybe some teddy bears for their kids,” Tina said. “I’ll help you scare up a few. How many of our kids have more toys than they know what to do with?” The mothers agreed, their chatter blurring into words Helen no longer bothered to discern. Tina shrugged her shoulders at her as though they shared a secret. After the meeting adjourned, she sought out Helen to confirm plans. “I’ll come over around ten tomorrow, okay? And I’m not going to bother getting dressed up.” She tugged her dress’s stiff collar. “Let’s just wear our pajamas as long as we can.” She rested her hand on Helen’s forearm and gave it a squeeze rather than saying goodbye. Helen felt a turn in her stomach that reminded her of new life quickening.
From afar, her home looked like a drawing she had made when she was a child. The flat face of her Georgian-style house seemed approachable. The two symmetrical chimneys promised warmth during the winter and rattled during rainstorms. A brick path led from the gate to her front stoop. She thought this house, the stability of it, would be good for them. Less turmoil. Her husband, Sam, would be calmer. It had been hard when they lived in an apartment complex and he didn’t allow her outside after dark. She was hoping it would be easier to leave him alone in a house with many rooms.
She unlatched the front gate. The wind had shifted, taking much of the morning’s smoke along with it. Sam and their little boy, Clem, sat on the front lawn, their legs out in front of them so the soles of their feet matched, flat to flat. Between them, a small gray tabby cat toddled. It sniffed Clem’s shin, then licked it. Clem pulled back his leg so fast the cat tumbled, paws up. It mewed as it regained its feet.
“Who’s this?” she asked, the question posed to Clem but her eyes searching Sam. He raised his square chin to her, directing her to kiss him.
“Dad got us a cat today.”
“Correction: Dad got your mother a cat,” Sam said. Clem reached toward the kitten. It bumped him with its tender nose, wary. It turned and galloped a few steps toward a clover patch.
“Can he sleep with me tonight?”
“I don’t see why not, unless your mom wants to sleep with him. You have to be careful with him, though.”
Sam reached out and picked up the kitten, his hand so massive he encircled its chest. The kitten straightened its legs and stared at the ground with an intent wistfulness. “I think someone should meet his mistress.”
“I don’t want to.” She’d grown up sneaking out to pet barn cats, hiding with them between hay bales. She fidgeted with plastic wrap over her cookie plate, occupying her greedy hands. “I didn’t think we wanted a cat.”
“The secretary’s cat had kittens and she needed to find them homes.” He set the cat on Helen’s breast and took the cookies from her. The kitten, panicked, pressed into her neck, asking her for protection. She remembered when Clem was young and colicky, screaming every time she put him down. She’d tried to keep him quiet, exhausted by being needed with such fervor. Sam had told her to shut him up, but Clem hadn’t cooperated. For a while she had to take him to her parents’ house to give Sam a chance to cool off. A new little boy, she thought, as she petted the kitten. He shoved his head beneath her nose, stopping up her breathing, forcing her to sniff his fur.
“Mom, I want to name him Brother Rocket.” Clem made a lift-off sound and raised his hand toward the sky.
“You seemed lonely,” Sam said. He leaned his mouth against the glassy flatness of her hair. The kitten stretched its paws against Helen’s shoulder. She broke away from Sam, lifting the kitten from her stinging skin, but its claws caught her shirt.
“Hey there, tiny guy, no needles, okay? You’re hurting me.” He reached out with his stripey legs, and she loved him so much already she could hardly contain it.
The kitten pushed away from her, jumping to the ground. Sam stepped in to kiss her temple. His rootlike arm wound around her waist. He smiled down at her, eyes big and open, taking her in. He was waiting for her to touch him. He needed her thanks. He reminded her of Clem running toward her with a handful of dandelions, his earnest little fist squeezing the milk from the stems.
“He’ll come around. He still needs a mama.”
“I’m not worried.” To the left of her, a wide boulevard, flanked by trees, restful lawns, cars in every driveway, flowers on bushes. To her right, a hill leading out of the subdivision, a sign that welcomed visitors to Maplewood Shadows, a resting bulldozer. On Monday, construction would resume, bringing more neighbors to their street—more lovely brides placed at the altar just as they changed from youth to womanhood, more husbands who would come home every night at the same time and increase their take-home pay each year. In those new houses, there would be more families, healthy as the square meals they would eat every night.
Tears sprang to her eyes and she swallowed hard. She breathed and coughed, coughed—she was choking on some bit of ash that had gotten stuck in her throat, it was stinging her, she couldn’t clear it, and for a flash, she wished it had been her house that had burned down. She would have waited with the coals as they died.
Tina rang the doorbell at 10:22, sons in tow. They ran upstairs to Clem’s room and knocked on his door without hesitating. They were like their mother that way, buoyant. Tina had brought her own cup of coffee and a handful of wrapped chocolates in the pocket of her robe. Helen had meant to stay in her pajamas. She’d tried to. But they smelled like Sam after a night of sleeping with his weight against her, and once she’d showered she couldn’t put on a clean nightgown. She chose a denim skirt and a soft tee, and she hadn’t put on a bra. That was rebellion enough for today. She was already crossing her arms to cover herself.
“What the Drummonds need is a quilt,” Tina said as she ate a chocolate. “Don’t quilts just say ‘comfort’ to you? Maybe it’s me. My mom was a quilter. I think she would have quilted my college wardrobe if I’d let her.”
Helen reached across the table to steal one of Tina’s chocolates. Tina popped a whole one in her mouth then sucked it, but Helen bit hers in two to savor.
As they compiled a list of must-haves, Helen heard herself laughing. It wasn’t as though Tina made jokes; it was as if everything she said was funny, powdery, like confectioner’s sugar dusting her lips and blowing sweetness across the table. Upstairs, the boys thumped around. The sound insulation was lacking in these new homes.
“What are they doing up there, tossing anvils?” Tina asked. “Riding elephants? How can three boys make that much noise? It’s uncanny.”
“Clem’s been so sad since we moved here. I’ve barely gotten him out of his room. Without our new kitten and your boys, he might have packed his little suitcase and run away.”
Tina ate the second-to-last of her chocolates. She pulled a kitchen chair in front of her and put up her feet. She had tiny toes. Helen wished she, too, had tiny toes.
“Can I tell you something?” Tina asked.
“You can. I’m a lockbox. Who would I chat with, anyway?”
“See, that’s the thing,” Tina said. “It’s been so long since I last had a good girl chat, you know? I’m married and swimming in sons. Whatever happened to women friends?”
“I know,” Helen said.
“I’ve been watching you,” Tina said. “I saw you at the grocery store. The boys were going wild so I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. But I thought you looked like you might be fun.”
“You were thumping on this melon and had this serious look on your face, like it was the most important melon to ever get thumped. And I thought that whenever that lady loosens up, she’ll be amazing. You know?”
Helen did not know. She awoke each day tangled in her husband and spent the mornings tending her son. She cleaned during the afternoons and cooked dinner. She fed Sam and Clem every night, then watched TV with Sam when Sam wanted her to. She had forgotten how to feel like herself, how to see the fun inside the solemn melon-thumper. She wasn’t sure she’d ever known anything besides the solemn part, forget the melon-thumping. She felt so appreciative of being noticed.
Tina tossed the final chocolate at Helen. It hit her on the forehead. “Go on and eat that, lovely. And next time, wear pajamas. You make me feel under-dressed.”
When the Drummonds returned to town a few weeks later, Carol’s father picked them up from the airport and brought them to Maplewood Shadows to survey the damage. The neighborhood mothers pulled aside their draperies or tilted open their Venetian blinds, watching through the cracks as the family arrived.
As soon as the car stopped, Carol released her seat belt, purse falling from the car cabin and landing upside down in the summer-dry gutter. She hurried to the ashes of her home and knelt in them, searching for unburned belongings. Helen watched from her front hall. It was like a silent movie, the windowpane dampening sound. The family’s mouths moved as they talked, their hands frantic as they burrowed through the remains, but Helen couldn’t tell what they were saying.
Tina paused at her bedroom window across the street, the frame a rectangle around her. Her house surrounded her with another rectangle—hard sides, firm structure, right angles, a brick façade. The width of the boulevard ran between them.
“What are you looking at?” Sam said behind her. Helen startled. He held her from behind and followed her gaze to the empty window where Tina had stood.
“The Drummonds,” Helen said. “Isn’t it sad? To have everything and lose it?”
The first topic they talked about was their mothers. It was easy to talk about mothers; they were busy mothering, so it was on their minds. Tina’s mother had an affair while her father was stationed in Korea; Helen’s mother liked to stop speaking to Helen whenever she thought her daughter was diverging from the Lord. They talked over coffee during their morning meetings. Even after the bedding sat collected in the guest room, waiting for the Drummonds to find a rental home in the area, they continued meeting. Helen didn’t tell Sam when the work was done. He didn’t ask so it didn’t feel too much like lying.
They moved on to stories of growing up while splitting a pitcher of sun tea on Tina’s front porch. The conversation started because Sam was upset she’d missed his call that morning, so she left her front door open, hoping she would hear it ring if he called again. She told Tina that he reminded her not so much of her father as of her grandfather. Her father had been kind but weak; her grandfather was the one who took her into the woods and made her skin the rabbit he’d snared even though she’d cried at the sight of its blood. He’d said it was her responsibility. Her mother had made the pelt into a muff for her. Tina said she’d always wanted a rabbit fur coat, but the way she said it sounded like she wanted to wrap Helen up in her arms. Tina told funny stories, then, about how her brothers had put her in a suitcase and pushed her off the garage roof over and over, just to prove she wouldn’t break any bones. She put her wrists in front of Helen, letting her see how the right bone stuck out where the other bone grew straight. “Great lesson. I learned it so well it didn’t even occur to me to go to the doctor,” she said while Helen laughed. She’d mentioned it this last year at Thanksgiving, but her brothers swore they wouldn’t have done something like that. “So I said, ‘Tell that to the X-ray machine. It might disagree with you.’ ”
They talked about their children, but they didn’t talk much about their husbands. They replaced names with “the boys’ father” or “Clem’s dad.” It felt like being grown-up women, fully individual, to pretend their left hands were as light as their right.
Tina poured them glasses of lemonade. The early August heat was broiling them. The conversation had moved to stories of romance. The boys needed to cool down in the water and the women wanted to wear as little clothing as possible, so they stripped to their bathing suits and pulled on sun hats to shade their faces. Tina’d brought her chaise lounge from across the street and screwed her sprinkler onto Helen’s hose while Helen hooked her new, long phone line into the wall and unrolled it. She walked the phone into the front yard with her and hid it under her chair. She could see the silverish leash of it leading back into the house, so she laid an awkward beach towel on top of it. Tina crushed some mint sprigs from Helen’s garden and dropped them into their glasses.
“Hank was so nervous he dropped the ring when he was proposing to me. I felt awful but I couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, I managed to say yes, but I was apologizing the whole time.”
“That’s sweet, though.”
“It was definitely sweet. The boy I dated in college proposed by telling me that we weren’t getting any younger and it was time we make a decision. That was less swell.”
“Better than mine. Sam just wasn’t careful. I told him not to, you know, when we were intimate, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“That’s not okay.”
“He said he’d make it right by marrying me. He panicked and got a me a really nice ring to apologize.” Helen laughed, but when she laughed it sounded like giving up. She twisted the ring on her finger, light caught in the facets. It shone nicely.
“We should have put whiskey in this lemonade.”
Later, Helen leaned over to pick up the towel from off the ground. The drinks caught up with her, rushing through her blood to knock her off balance. Tina reached out to steady her, hand on Helen’s hipbone, thumb pressing into her soft flesh. She didn’t move her hand as soon as she could have, and when her hand dropped Helen could still feel her thumbprint burning her nerves like a brand.
One night toward the end of the fire summer, Sam didn’t come home until well past midnight. Helen set down the cat and folded up her newspaper at the sound of wheels in the driveway.
“Hi, baby,” Sam said as she held open the screen door for him. He smelled like Scotch, tight and woody. He hung his suit jacket over the end of the banister and wandered past Helen into the kitchen. He opened the fridge, finding a sandwich box of cold meatloaf before she had a chance to tell him what she’d made for dinner. He sank his teeth into a cold hunk of meat.
Helen closed the fridge door; Sam wouldn’t have remembered. Crumbs of meatloaf tumbled down his chin and landed on the floor. She pulled a paper towel off the roll and knelt in front of him to wipe them up.
“While you’re down there,” he said, then laughed as he flipped his zipper.
“Not tonight,” she said. “I think you’d better go to bed.” He seemed weaker while drunk. He collapsed back on his elbows against the counter as he tucked the final bite of meatloaf in his mouth.
She leaned in to kiss his cheek, and he wrapped himself around her, his hands five places, his legs trapping her, his chin even pinning her shoulder to his chest. He was so drunk he was falling, taking her with him, slipping slowly toward the floor.
“Let go,” Helen said, but he didn’t. Her knees bashed against his as they slid. She felt her ankle turning underneath her. “Not funny. Let go.”
He laughed but released her, grabbing the counter and steadying himself. “When’d you get so dull? I’ve had you on the floor a few times before.”
She touched her closed eyes with her fingertips, feeling the rebellious flutter of her lids against the pressure of her touch.
“Are you crying? God, would you lighten up?”
Brother Rocket emerged from his hiding place. His feet touched the linoleum with a faint syncopation, front feet followed by back. He glided by his owners to take a drink from his water bowl. His pink tongue was like a ladle.
“That cat walks in the room and you stop everything to watch,” Sam said. He said the words like they were a joke he hated, droplets of his spit landing on Helen’s face. “You really like this cat?” It was as if the alcohol had burned off during the second her attention had been diverted.
Sam snatched Brother Rocket, dangled him in front of her by his red collar.
“Put him down,” Helen said. The kitten clawed with his feet as though trying to climb the air. “You’re hurting him, put him down.” She reached for the kitten’s hindquarters to take the pressure off his throat, but Sam lifted him higher. Brother Rocket squeezed his eyes shut when Sam held him too close to the overhead light, but he let his limbs go still as though saving his oxygen to prolong what small life he retained. “Stop. Stop.” She sank down to her knees again, her hands steadying against Sam’s thighs. She linked her fingers over his waistband.
Sam tossed the cat. Brother Rocket woke up mid-air, his feet flying in front of him. When he hit the ground, he waited for a second, as though shaking off a faint, before he turned toward the front hall and charged up the stairs.
Helen hid her face in the cloth of her husband’s pants. He found her chin and lifted her face toward his. He guided her off her knees, commanding her to stand before him, chin up, as he dropped his light hold of her. His face sagged under the weight of alcohol now that his excitement disappeared. “Find your goddamn cat.”
He jangled his pocket, checking for his keys. “I don’t want Clem playing with those Roberts kids anymore.” She nodded. He picked up his suit coat as he walked out the door. Each step was sudden, hard, as though he were stomping the earth. He flung the car door open and dropped himself on the driver’s seat. Helen locked the house door behind him and ran to find Brother Rocket hiding in Clem’s room, licking his paws after his hard landing. She sat on the floor of Clem’s room amid dump trucks and toppled wooden blocks.
“Mom,” Clem said. He’d pulled the covers up over his head but whispered through them.
“He’s gone,” she said. She climbed into bed behind him, spooning him. Brother Rocket leaped up, too, tucking himself into the fortress of her knees.
Helen sat on a couch in Tina’s living room. Her hands knotted themselves together in her lap. Tina placed a cinnamon bun in front of Helen while finding a coaster for her tea. She had made the bun from scratch, wrapping preserves into the dough. Helen broke off a bit of it. She could taste the butter, a halo around the jam.
“I hear Carol Drummond’s expecting again,” Tina said. “I hope she’s all right. I don’t even know how she’d have a chance to get pregnant, sleeping on her mother-in-law’s sofa bed. I guess people spring back.”
“Yes,” Helen said. She thought of the sundial of shaded pills she was now hiding in her pantry. Sam said they should be trying. The pills made her nauseated, but the doctor said that side effect would pass.
“It’s nice to think, you know? Life goes on.”
Helen had taken to skipping Tina’s phone calls. Sam answered the phone at night and would tell her it was Tina so she could hear the call being declined. She stopped taking walks. When Clem asked if he could go play army with the Roberts twins, Helen shook her head, neat and painful as a paper cut.
“I feel like you’re mad at me.” Tina retied her bathrobe around her round, forgiving waist and came to sit closer to Helen on the couch.
“I know, and I’m so sorry, I can’t stay today, either. I just wanted to make a quick stop. Ask you a question.”
“Anything, sure.” Tina’s hand went to her hair. She twisted a lock around her finger as though she were tying down her thoughts. She pinched her lips and waited.
He could be coming home. He could be coming home for lunch the way he sometimes did with the Chinese food he knew she loved. He had been like himself for the past couple weeks. Maybe he would stay like himself. They were living together in a new house with many rooms. She could occupy each one in succession. She could keep moving, room to room to room.
She placed a packed tote on the floor in front of her. “After the fire, I started thinking what might happen in an emergency. What we might need if we ever had to get away fast. And I was thinking—would you keep a bag for us? It’s just a little money I’ve saved and a change of clothes for Clem and me,” Helen said.
Tina took the tote by its handles as she stood. “Just you and Clem?”
“Sam can pack his own tote, I think.”
“I should pack a bag, too,” Tina said. “Leave it with yours. If this whole subdivision catches on fire, we’ll grab them and go off together.”
“Okay,” Helen said. “And the twins?”
“They can come.”
“He’d probably go stay with his girlfriend.” Again the lightness in her tone, the brave lack of carefulness with his secret. “He was so clumsy when we dated. I don’t know how he managed to land a woman once, much less twice.”
Helen reached out for Tina’s arm to offer consolation, but Tina took her hand instead. Her bottom lip was wet, her eyes char-dark.
“You don’t go back,” Tina said. Her face came nearer. Helen felt her breath like a backdraft, her presence an accelerant.
The bulldozer growled as it idled beside the Drummonds’ foundation. Timbers had been hauled away to reveal the crushed and blackened living room chairs, the twisted onyx block that had been the dishwasher, the oven paused in open-mouthed shock. They’d told the neighborhood they would rebuild their home just the same as before. The foundations remained solid. In a few years, they’d said, no one would remember the house had ever disintegrated.
One Wednesday that seemed like every other Wednesday, Helen and Tina waited for their sons by the schoolhouse together. Packed suitcases lay on top of each other in the trunk. Brother Rocket stared at the bars of his crate, patient with his confinement as though he understood its necessity. The women perched on the front seat of Tina’s station wagon, waiting for the alarm to ring and let them out.