In ZanesvilleA Novel
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Beard, Jo Ann
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780316084475
We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we’re supposed to be in charge here, so there’s a sense of somebody not doing their job.
“I told you to go up there and see what they were doing,” Felicia says.
“I told you to go up there,” I reply.
We’ve divided the kids up, three each, and two of hers were upstairs playing with matches while the third, and all of mine, were secured in the backyard.
The smoke isn’t too bad at this point; basically it smells like a campfire. We still can’t find where it’s coming from, although the third-floor bathroom is a pretty safe bet, if we listen to Renee, who is accusing Derek of setting a toilet paper fire in a wicker wastebasket.
There is no sign of Derek anywhere; he set the fire and moved on to the next thing. Renee, loitering in the hallway, had played Barbie until the last possible moment and then gave up when the smoke began swirling, calling out, “Fire!” in an annoyed voice.
“He said if I told, he’d murder me,” she trilled, loping down the stairs and out, eluding us.
We’ve been babysitting for the Kozaks all summer, five days a week, eight hours a day; six kids—Derek, Renee, Stewart, Wanda, Dale, Miles—and various other, easier-to-control creatures: a tarantula, a python, a rat snake, some white mice, and an elderly German shepherd with bad hips who lies in the dirt next to the doghouse all day, licking his stomach. We each get seventy-five cents per hour, which doesn’t sound like enough when we’re here but blooms into an incredible bounty on the weekends, when we’re lying around trying to decide how to spend it. Almost a dollar an hour, accumulating slowly and inexorably, in a revolving series of gagging diaper changes, nose wipings, placing of buzzing flies in the tarantula’s terrarium, assembly-line construction of baloney-cheese-mayonnaise sandwiches, folding of warm laundry, chipping of egg crust off the vinyl tablecloth, benevolent dispensing of Sno-Kone dimes, helpless shouting, appalling threats, and perusal of their porn library.
We are fourteen, only three years older than Derek, who is the oldest of the Kozak children. Derek isn’t much work because he disappears for most of each day, showing up only when the parents are due back home, which is fine with us. He won’t mind, he cusses, and he once threw a handful of worms at us after a rainstorm. The other five kids range in age from one and a half to nine; some in fact claim to be the same age, although none of them look even vaguely alike. We can’t figure it out, but then again, we don’t try to.
“Man, are we in for it,” Felicia says, panting.
We’re evacuating the pets. She’s struggling with the smaller snake aquarium, which houses, along with the python, the python’s furniture—a bent log, a plastic bowl, and a rock for the mice to hide behind. The snake, a young albino, is gently probing its ivory nose at the jumbo box of ice cream sandwiches we’ve put on top to hold the wire mesh lid in place.
I’ve got the tarantula cage under one arm and all seven white mice, which are riding in a pillowcase. Once outside, I go through the gate, past the semicollapsed garage into the alley to where the sticker bushes are, set the pillowcase down, and give it a poke. The mice nose their way out and disappear into the bramble.
“The mice just escaped,” I announce to the kids as I come back through the gate.
“Wanda ate gum off the fence,” Dale reports.
Wanda is hanging upside down from the rusty jungle gym. She opens her mouth and something purple lands in the dirt. “Dale stole money,” she calls out.
“Shut up and stay there,” I tell them.
“Our mom said if you told us to shut up one more time, she’d shut you up for good,” Renee informs me. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it—her mother has a thatch of black hair that she sets on hot curlers every morning, and once when she was taking out the curlers, she said, “Look,” and when I looked she had popped out her false tooth and was leering like a jack-o’-lantern.
So far, no smoke is visible outdoors, but when we go back inside, the hallway is swirling, and it stinks quite a bit, more like a toilet paper fire now than a campfire. It takes both of us to handle the rat snake aquarium; we’re staggering, trying not to breathe, but we both hate the rat snake and are scared it will get loose, so we stop and rescue some food to pile on top—a box of cereal and some flat packages of cheese—and then lug it toward the door.
The snake, agitated, puts his head under a corner of the lid, and about four inches of him leaks out, right near my hand. I start screaming and then Felicia sees him undulating there and starts screaming too. For a moment, we revolve in panicked circles, holding the aquarium between us and screaming. The sound is so loud and frightening in the narrow, smogged hallway that we calm down and use a package of cheese to direct him back inside where he belongs.
“Now what are we supposed to do?” Felicia asks, once we’re outside.
The children, clustered by their swing set, stare over our heads. Behind us, like a dragon, their house has begun to exhale long tendrils of smoke.
Forget fathers, forget teachers: our mothers are the ones with the answers, the only people who know something about everything, although it’s true that the answers are never that great and that both mothers are incredibly bossy and both have at least one disturbing trait. For Felicia’s mother, it’s a bad back that can go out on a moment’s notice, freezing her in place; for my mother, it’s a deep manlike voice that frightens people. Felicia’s mother, Phyllis, works downtown at an optometrist’s office, answering the phone and polishing eyeglasses; my mother works near the river at a cement company, typing and doing accounting.
We call Phyllis about any issue involving the kids and their behavior, and call my mom about anything having to do with food or household troubles. Both mothers are in the dark—obviously—about the snakes, the furred spider, the pink-nosed mice, and the occasional late-afternoon visits by a rival motorcycle gang called the Cherry Pickers.
We call the Kozak parents about nothing; we don’t even know where they go during the day, each of them riding off on their own motorcycle. Yvonne wears green hospital scrubs and black leather chaps; Chuck wears jeans that fasten somewhere underneath his stomach, and tall clanking boots with buckles; they both wear leather jackets year-round that say King Dong on the back.
“Sand and Gravel,” my mom says in her at-work voice. “How may I help you?”
“Hi,” I say. I’m in the back hallway with my head out the door, the phone cord stretched as far as it will go.
“Uh-oh,” she says over the sound of typewriters, her own and that of her co-workers, Trish and Char, women my mother mentions incessantly around the house. “Now what?”
Once I tell her, there’s no way around something hideous happening. I knew we should’ve called Phyllis, who is more erratic but also pliant. A toxic cloud of smoke is starting to come out the doorway, swirling past us into the bright summer air of the cluttered yard. Felicia raises her eyebrows at me and steps backward, down the porch steps.
“What, quick, I’m busy,” my mom says, lighting a cigarette into the telephone.
“Well,” I say. “Something’s on fire here.”
“What do you mean, something’s on fire?” she barks. All the background typing stops.
“There’s some smoke, not too much,” I say.
“Don’t say some,” Felicia hisses. “Say lots, but that it was Derek, not us.”
“I heard that,” my mother says quickly. “Where are the kids?”
“Out,” I say.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“In,” I say.
“Get out right now,” she tells me.
“Don’t call the fire department,” I plead.
“Out,” she says. “And get those kids far away from the house.”
“This is embarrassing!” I cry, slamming the phone down.
We move the children to the next-door neighbor’s yard, a place so beautifully mowed and toyless that it might as well be in another dimension. The man, Mr. Vandevoort, uses a table knife to make a narrow moat between the grass and the sidewalk; Mrs. Vandevoort grows rosebushes along the side of the house and petunias in a painted tire. She wears white ankle socks and comes out briskly clapping her hands whenever a crow settles on the lawn. It’s a good thing they’re at work, because they would not like knowing that the Kozak children are standing on their grass. We set the snakes and the spider under their picnic table and frantically call Lurch, the German shepherd, over and over, until he gets to his feet, hobbles across the yard, and stares through the open gate.
“You’re gonna get burned up!” the children shriek at him. Stewart sprints over, tugs on the dog’s collar twice, and then gives up and sprints back. Lurch sits down and cocks his head, listening, then points his nose into the air and makes a high, thin howl.
A siren can be heard off in the distance.
As it turns out, the firemen, who we were afraid of, are nicer than my own mother, who we both are and aren’t afraid of. She pulls up in the Oldsmobile, smoking a cigarette and accompanied by Trish and Char, also smoking cigarettes. At that point the firemen have already unrolled their hose and carried it inside the house. They haven’t even bothered to latch their boots, and in fact behave more like garbage men, swinging on and off their truck, banging things around, and carrying on conversations that aren’t about fire.
Right as my mother and her friends pile out of the car, the firemen begin breaking all the windows in the third floor. My mother stares upward, through dark green sunglasses.
“Goddamn it,” she says.
Felicia and I have now joined the ranks of the children; we stand side by side on the Vandevoorts’ grass, me holding Miles in his wet diaper, Felicia with her hands over Wanda’s ears. Shattering glass and shouted orders for two minutes and then it’s over.
“Hi, I’m responsible for these two,” my mother explains to the fireman in charge, pointing at us. “They’re only fourteen.”
You can tell he’s the chief because he looks like a fireman from a television show. He has carried forth from the house the charred skeleton of a wicker wastebasket and a molten hunk of turquoise plastic that used to be the diaper pail.
“The fire was contained to the third-floor bathroom,” he tells her. “And it wasn’t even a fire, actually, although we soaked the room pretty extensively—you just have to,” he explains apologetically. “It looks like what they said: matches and toilet paper. This thing”—he inclines his head toward the melted plastic pail, a hunk of brown diaper still visible—“is where the noxious smell came from. Second and first floors, they need some fans going for a couple of hours and it’ll clear out okay. We gave them free air-conditioning on the third floor.”
My mother and her friends talk in low voices while the men roll up the hose and kick the shards of glass off the driveway. One of the ones wearing his rubber coat open over an undershirt points to the bare feet of the children and then to the glass. Feet, glass. Get it? The children nod obediently, struck dumb by the dazzling celebrity of all this.
Miles, clasped against my dampening T-shirt, takes a plastic shovel out of his mouth and points it at the big red truck in the driveway.
“Fire fuck,” he whispers.
My mother takes her colleagues back to the office and then returns with two old, clattering fans to add to the ones that are already going, and a grocery sack full of worn-out bath towels. When all the fans are set up it’s like a terrible, rattling wind tunnel, smelly, and then my mother makes me and Felicia wipe down the front hall with damp rags.
The kids sit at the kitchen table while my mother scrubs the vinyl tablecloth and then makes them lunch from what she finds in the icebox.
“We’re having chicken!” Stewart cries.
“It’s tuna fish, poophead,” Wanda says. She looks at my mother with a mixture of challenge and awe. “Huh? He’s got poop on his head.”
“Hey,” my mother says. She stares down at Wanda until Wanda closes her eyes, picks up her sandwich, and takes a bite, then sets it back down, half on the plate and half on the tablecloth.
“She’s blind,” says Dale helpfully. “She can’t even see the poop on her own head.”
“If I hear any more of that, you’ll all be spanked,” my mother says. “I don’t fool around.”
“They’re finally gonna get it,” I whisper to Felicia. Our bucket is full of black, oily water now and we’re done cleaning, just waiting for my mother to leave, slapping at the walls and the baseboards only when she walks by the doorway.
“We’re the ones who are gonna get it,” Felicia whispers back. “We burned up their house.”
For a moment, we both have an image of Chuck, in his boots and cracked leather jacket, the overhang of the stomach, the walrus mustache, the way we have seen him grab Yvonne by the waist in order to say something in her ear. She’s not exactly petite, either—Felicia saw her pick up Stewart by the neck once and give him a toss. In going through their dresser drawers, we’ve come across black-and-white photos of Yvonne and Chuck and some of their friends, all stark naked in a variety of shocking tableaus. The pictures are mostly of couples and groups, squirming around on gray bedclothes or outside on blankets with rocks in the background—all except one, of an older woman wearing a sailor’s hat and nothing else. She’s lying on a bed grinning into the camera and saluting. We used to stare at it every few days for a long time, trying to make sense of her pose, her expression, the deep dirtiness of the whole endeavor. Then one day she showed up at the house, with a very large teenage girl in blue jeans. The two of them sat on the back steps, smoking and drinking Pepsi, and ended up leaving right before Yvonne and Chuck came home. The older woman was wearing a tank top and she didn’t have on a sailor hat, but it was definitely her.
We can’t even anticipate what these people are capable of. Derek is missing, my mother is trespassing, the house is coated in soot, the ice cream bars are melted. Felicia begins to cry.
“Don’t cry or she’ll never leave,” I beg in a whisper.
“W-w-w-we’re deh-heh-head,” she sobs. “Deh-heh-head.”
A crowd appears in the doorway, the kids clustered behind my mother.
“No use in crying, Flea,” she says briskly. “This isn’t your doing, it’s theirs.” She means Derek, Yvonne, Chuck, the entire crew of Kozaks, for calling all this attention to themselves. The children gaze up at her, a tall, sandwich-making woman with a deep voice who can make the babysitters mind.
“She better go home,” Renee suggests to my mother. “Right?”
“Wrong,” my mother replies.
Go home! Home, where it’s somebody’s job to babysit us. We wish fervently that we’d listened to ourselves and not taken this job. All to get clothes! Specifically, a pair of tweed wool culottes with a matching jacket for me and a navy blue sweaterdress for Felicia. Those are the outfits that started the whole problem, which has now expanded to fisherman’s sweaters, Nehru shirts, two-toned Capezios, a plaid wool miniskirt, green corduroy flannel-cuffed shorts, et cetera. And all on layaway at the Style, a store we wouldn’t even have the nerve to go into if we weren’t hopped up on all this income.
We do enjoy our Saturdays, though, after a hard workweek. Our pattern is to sleep late, at one or the other of our houses, and then walk uptown to eat at Weigandt’s, a soda fountain run by a family with prominent noses. Even their littlest kids have to work there, counting jelly beans and putting them in Baggies with twist ties; their grandmother sits slumped at the cash register with her hands tucked in her armpits; one of their teenagers waits on us. I always order the same thing: iced tea with sugar and two bananas sliced into a bowl of mayonnaise. Felicia gets navy bean soup, fried baloney, and the same thing as me to drink. From there, we walk downtown to shop at the Style, picking out new items and laying them away along with the old ones; then we go to Carlson’s, our downtown’s department store, to use the bathroom on the fifth floor, which has pale blue carpeting that I once threw up on. Then we go to the dime store and poke through bins of crap—buttons, hairnets, shoehorns, clothespins—until we’re in a bad mood; then we go to Felicia’s mom’s office and wait to get a ride back up the hill with her.
The optometrist’s office is grubby and stale, with withered, dusty plants climbing all over inside the front window, and the optometrist himself wears thick, smudged glasses; it’s like peering into a pond to look him in the eye.
“Here they are again,” he always says, leaning out from behind his curtain. “Frick and her friend Frack.”
Felicia’s mom’s working at an optometrist’s office is why Felicia had contact lenses before anyone else had even heard of them. They are virtually invisible and yet still have to be located when they pop out onto the floor or float off their mark, drifting like unmoored rafts into the farthest bloodshot reaches of her eyeballs.
My mother disapproves of the whole concept of contact lenses—the idea of putting a shard of glass in your eye! “I don’t know what Phyllis is thinking,” she said. “This doctor has her over a barrel.”
“It’s a new thing!” I tried to explain.
“Yes,” she replied, arching a brow. “They’ve got to have the crème de la crème over there.” She’d never forgiven Felicia’s mother for buying a blue fur couch and armchair. Not fur like a real animal, but fur like a stuffed animal.
Right now the smoke and the crying have irritated Felicia’s eyes to the point where she has to switch to glasses, turning her into an earlier horn-rimmed version of herself. She immediately resumes the unconscious habit of wrinkling her nose upward to reset the heavy glasses when they slip down.
“Here comes the witch of witcherton,” she says, staring at herself in the hall mirror. Actually, if one of us is good looking, it’s her. She’s tall and elegant, green eyed, although her teeth are slightly out of order, and she isn’t particularly neat.
I, on the other hand, am neat, but that’s about it. The body is wrong, scrawny; the face is pale and nondescript under its suntan. I talk with a faint sibilance that people think comes from the gap between my front teeth but that actually comes from me trying to be like Dee Jurgenmeyer, a girl from my childhood who had a real lisp. Once I started it, I couldn’t stop, even when they sent us both to speech therapy and Dee was cured. The hair is the best feature, limp but long and silky. I don’t particularly like having nice hair, though, because it gives people the wrong impression about me.
It’s like a mysterious stranger I saw in a movie once, who everyone thought was a beautiful lost child in a red cape. From a distance all you could see besides the swirling cape was a head of lustrous hair. A man finally grabbed the child by the hood and turned it around and it was a leering dwarf; the man screamed, and everyone at the movie screamed too. That’s why I mostly wear my hair in braids.
In fact, my mother does finally return to work, after taking it upon herself to leave her phone number and a note of explanation on the kitchen table. She also put the kids down for naps, something we never even bothered trying before.
“That’s a good way to get a fire started,” Felicia says as they troop upstairs.
As soon as my mother’s gone, we tear up her note and the phone number. One by one the children drift back downstairs to stare at us.
“That lady was mean,” Wanda says admiringly.
Dale is staring out the window. Suddenly he bolts for the back door. “Here come the cops!” he shrieks. “Here come the cops!”
The children disperse like vapor, all but Miles, who clings to my leg, sobbing.
There’s a cop on the front porch, fitted out with a gun and holster. Felicia and I open the door together; Miles goes limp and lets me lift him off my leg and onto my hip.
“Who’s in charge here?” the cop asks.
“The parents are, but they aren’t home,” Felicia says in a whisper. “We’re here right now, but her mother was in charge.” She gestures toward me and quickly retreats behind her hair, the straw curtain.
“She stepped out,” I lie. Felicia nods vigorously at the floor.
“So, you the babysitters?” he asks.
“We were, we aren’t sure now,” Felicia says evasively. She looks steadfastly past the barbered edges of his head. Behind him, next to the door, is a round leaded-glass window with a number of BBs lodged in it.
“You didn’t call the fire department when you had a fire,” the cop states, as though he’s reading it off a police report. “Out of ‘embarrassment,’ that right?”
“No,” I say. “We did call.” He’s slightly fat and has got several things swinging from his waistline, including a radio, a leather nightstick, a long-handled flashlight, and a pair of handcuffs.
“Well, next time keep in mind,” he says, “you could end up literally dying of embarrassment.”
“We called!” Felicia insists, looking at him directly for the first time. In fact, glaring. “How else do you think the firemen got here?”
He stares at us, chewing a thin strand of gum, one hand resting on the knob of his nightstick. We stare back for a while and then give up and look off to the side. “I need to talk to the boy who started the blaze,” he says finally.
“We don’t know where he is,” I tell the cop. “Nobody knows.”
A voice comes ringing down from above. “He’s at Victor’s!” Renee calls out. A moment later she appears on the landing, wearing a swimsuit and a pair of boots. “He thinks the whole house is burned down.”
“Well, I’ll be sure and let him know,” the cop says generously, “if you tell me where Victor lives.”
She stares down at us, scratching at her leg inside the rubber boot. The cop looks at me.
“Tell him, Renee,” I order her.
She turns and runs up again, into the farthest reaches of the ruined house.
Felicia sighs and heads outside the back way; Miles puts his hands on my cheeks and turns my face toward his. “Cah?” he asks moistly.
“Cop,” I tell him, and then feel confused. Is that wrong, to say cop? “Policeman,” I clarify.
Felicia returns in half a minute with Stewart; she’s got his arm twisted behind his back so he has to walk sideways up the front steps.
“Okay, I don’t like to see that,” the cop tells her. She lets him go.
Stewart’s face is streaked with tears, and his white hair is pressed against his pale pink head. His shorts are a size too small. He tugs at the front of them.
“Let me ask you, pal,” the cop says to Stewart. He moves closer and then tries to crouch, but his gear rides up on him. He puts a knee down to steady himself. “Can you tell me where Victor lives?”