Dancing Amongst the Ashes

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

By Alex Scarelli

I drew in the dirt of our yard with a stick, watching the late summer sun fall from the sky and my Dad coming up the driveway in his pickup. When he parked, he got out and grabbed his lunchbox and a six-pack of Budweiser from the back of the truck.

“You clean the house for your mother?” Dad said as he crossed me in the yard and made his way up the porch. Before I could answer, he opened the screen door and made his way to the den. I stayed outside waiting for Mom.

Mom was as a cashier in the cafeteria of the Gillette factory, and earlier that summer she told me about her boss Richard, who cheated on his wife in the supply closet with Sandrine, a cashier who only lasted a few months before Richard’s wife scared her away by showing up to her apartment with a knife, and about Lola, the black woman who showed Mom the proper way to flavor meat.

Mom’s stories weren’t special, but she seemed delighted to have an audience that paid attention. Dad sometimes listened when we ate dinner. He’d look up from his plate to Mom and say, “Nobody likes a gossip, Marianne.” He said it mean, but winked at her, and Mom would stroke the coarse black hairs on his forearm.

My favorite stories were the ones Mom shared only with me. She’d say, “Now don’t tell your father,” before she went on about Adam, one of the floor supervisors who went through Mom’s line and sometimes tucked a five dollar bill under a card with his number on it. On those days, Mom would bring me home candy cigarettes and a chocolate bar she bought with the money. “I don’t call him,” she’d say. “He’s just sweet.”
An hour after Dad came home, Mom’s Ford Galaxie shuffled to the house. Mom parked behind Dad and walked towards me, her hips swaying as she stepped in her heels. “There’s a fire next town over,” Mom said. She came up the front porch carrying two packs of Camels for Dad in one hand and in the other clutched the straps of her purse and a greasy brown McDonald’s bag. She placed the bag beside me. “Eat and we’ll go.” Mom opened the screen door. “Charlie,” she said to my father. “Cigarettes. I’ll leave them by the door. We’re going to see the fire.”

“You making dinner?” he said, his sleepy voice just audible over Tom Brokaw’s Nightly News. Mom looked to the bag of burgers.

“Only one,” Mom said to me. I took out a warm burger wrapped in thin yellow paper and turned it over in my hands. The arches and CHEESEBURGER were repeated on the paper, scrawled in gaudy brown text. Mom took out two burgers from the bag. “I’ll leave the burgers with the cigarettes,” she said to my father.

Mom walked back to the Galaxie and sat on its hood. “Hurry up eating,” she said. “I want to get there before it gets dark.” From her purse she took out a cigarette and the pack of saltines she routinely ate on workdays, one half with butter for lunch and the other on her way home from work.

I took large bites of the burger, swallowed hard as it slid down my throat, and wiped my hands on my pants and my slick lips and the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand. I walked to the Galaxie and climbed in the front seat.

“You want a saltine?” Mom said. She opened the driver’s side door and threw her cigarette to the ground. I took the remaining stack.

“Where’s the fire?” I said.

“In Lawrence, near the hardware store.” Mom started the Galaxie and turned her head to back out of the driveway.

“Is everyone okay?”

“I think so,” Mom said. “There was a baby they were unsure of, but they found him okay.”

Mom turned on the radio and sang softly to a song I’d never heard before. As we drove, I rested my head on the window and watched kids play outside, jumping in sprinklers while their fathers chased them around their lawns. Mothers brought out popsicles sleeved in crisp white paper wrappers or trays of Kool-Aid in clear glasses with ice tinkling and bobbing on the surface.

When I was a little younger, maybe five or six, I thought Mom had a beautiful voice. When she was getting ready for a Christmas party at the Gillette factory, I sat at the foot of her bed and watched her comb her hair in front of the vanity mirror. She sang along with Maria Callas, whose voice crescendoed from the record player my father kept on his nightstand. I asked her if she’d ever tried to be famous.

“No, no,” she had said and laughed. “It’s not such a nice voice.” But as I watched her brush her cheeks with the pink powder that rested in a small glass jar on her vanity, I believed her voice was magnificent, that she was truly someone spectacular that the world needed to hear, that to be famous, to be known, was as simple as wanting it.

As we rode to the fire, I listened more to her than the crooner on the radio until Mom turned down the volume, slowed the car and pulled onto the side of the road.

In front of the windshield, a wrap-around porch stood erect, etching out the boundaries of a small ranch house. The walls had collapsed inward, a pile of charred debris, but the left siding of the ranch remained, held up by the bricks of a fireplace. A large potted ficus, its leaves scorched and some of its branches missing, had somehow emerged from the wreckage and swayed in a breeze that picked up and scattered wisps of smoke that floated skyward. A Dodge Charger sat in the driveway, its windows blown out and its siding singed and dented. Tiny glass pebbles shimmered on the ground beneath the car. Everywhere, in and around the house, on the front lawn, and on the edges of the street, were heaps of ashes and discarded wood planks and boards.

“Awful,” I said, and looked across the car. Mom’s eyes panned the remnants as she held the steering wheel tight. They seemed wider and lighter, the dying colors of the sky reflected in her corneas.

I observed that same awed glare on Mom’s face only once before when we went to Niagara Falls the summer prior. Mom had stood by the railing of the boat we traveled on, her head moving from side to side to take in the whole of the falls as it filled our ears with the tremendous sound of a billion rainstorms. The water surged down the cataract and smacked against the rock beneath, throwing a fine, cool luminescent mist in the air that carried to us on the boat, ghostlike, and lightly wetted our clothes and faces.

“Magnificent,” she had said. “Just magnificent.” She rested her head on Dad’s shoulder and put a hand on my back. “God, it’s beautiful.”

Standing in front of her by the railing, I looked back at my mother and saw her alone, set against a clear sky, the sun shining her hair and dew from the falls collecting on her brow and cheeks. She seemed in a moment that was her own: singularly struck by the enormity of what stood before her, aware of nothing but the water that fell and cleansed the rocks below.
When we got home from the fire, I walked up the stairs to my bedroom while Mom went to the den to shake Dad awake.

The humidity that night was the worst of that whole summer. The box fan in my room whirred in the window, recycling stale, hot air. I rested my sticky, slick body on top of the covers of my bed. I turned and turned, and a smoky scent rose from my skin.

When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of our house burnt to the studs. I was dancing amongst the ashes, my tongue out to catch ashy flakes and my arms outstretched, waiting to fall to the ground to make a snow angel as the ashes accumulated.

I saw Mom sitting in the Galaxie outside the house, a cigarette burning out on her lips. She took it from her mouth and said “Magnificent” over and over until she started the car and drove away, her eyes set upon the rear-view mirror until I was out of sight.

Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student