Friday, October 31, 2008

Dining By Firelight

The only illumination at the restaurant was the candles placed on diners’ tables. Conversation was a pleasant soft murmur. The menu was overpriced, but it was our anniversary. All elements were in place for a romantic evening out.

Tim’s phone rang. “Ignore it,” I begged, but Tim was already talking. “Yeah, we can be there,” he said. “We’re about 30 minutes away.”

“Whatever it is, it can wait,” I said. Tim hung up the phone. “I can’t. It’s the Red Cross. A family’s just had a house fire. We’ve got to relocate them.”

When people think of the Red Cross, they tend to think of the big things: war, hurricane, earthquake. They don’t realize that volunteers also get called out for flooded basements or house fires. . .these little personal earthquakes that can touch just a single family.

We arrived at the address given. It was a trailer park. I expected a fire engine or police car parked, its red lights whirling silently. But the park was quiet, and we drove down row after row of trailers until we found the one.

The fire has already been put out; the trailer was dark, with blackened soot streaking from the windows and door. We stepped out of the car. The acid tang of the residual smoke hit my nose.

Two other Red Cross volunteers, Bob and Kathy, had already arrived. “Can you smell that?” said Kathy. “That’s the smell of formaldehyde. These trailers are full of it. When I lived in one, I would shampoo the carpet over and over to get the smell out.”

Tim needed to talk to the family and assess what they could use: housing, clothing, money. “They’re over by the truck,” said Bob.

A small, well-worn woman sat on the tailgate of the truck, holding a black x-shaped guitar in her lap. Her feet swung back and forth. “Tommy would have killed me if I had let his guitar get burned up,” she said.

Tim pulled out a clipboard and started filling out paperwork. “Who’s Tommy.”
“He lives here,” said the woman.
“Is he here? Is he okay?” asked Tim.
“He’s in Vegas,” she said. “He’s bailing a friend out of jail.”

She continued to speak as Tim wrote on his clipboard. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she said. “We’ve only been here for two weeks.” The woman had been living in a motel, renting by the week, for the last few months and keeping clear of an abusive ex who had a warrant out for his arrest. She had finally landed someplace to stay. Got a job as a cashier at the local Goodwill.

Tim tried to get a head count for his report. “Now, your name is. .”
“Sharon,” she said. “And this is my son, Phoenix.”

A guy, in his early 20’s, stepped forward into the pool of light cast by our flashlight. I wondered what caused Phoenix’s mother to saddle him with such a cryptic name, since he was too old to be named after the dead actor. Perhaps his birth was a rebirth of some sort for Sharon.

“Are you owners of the house?” asked Tim.
“No,” said Sharon. “Lindsey, over there, is. Well, Lindsey’s mom does, technically.”

I could track Lindsey by the jittery glow of her cigarette, as she wandered in lopsided circles. She looked like she was in her teens, but carried the air of someone trying to pass as older. “My cat,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of my cat.”

“Is the cat still in the house, hon?” asked Kathy.
“No. . .” Lindsey said. “He ran off.”
“You know, hon,” said Kathy. “Cats are real good at taking care of themselves. I’m sure he’s hiding somewhere safe. We’ll leave food and water out for him, and see if he shows up in the morning.”

Tim turned back to Sharon. “How did the fire start?”
“I don’t know,” said Sharon. “I was gone. Lindsey was home.”

Lindsey said nothing. She continued to circle and smoke her cigarette.

“Wait,” said Bob. “We’ve got to get these people comfort kits before we put them up for the night. “ He dug through the Red Cross kit. “These are for you,” he said, giving Sharon, Phoenix and Lindsey a gallon size plastic bag. “These were paid for by the community through donations to the Red Cross,” Bob finished ceremoniously.

The bags are filled with little things: washcloths, razors, soap, and shampoo. I thought, this is all they now have. Everything they owned was contained in a gallon size bag.

“I’ve got to make some phone calls to get you folks a place to stay for the night,” said Tim. “So, if you’ll excuse me for a minute. . .”

Bob and Tim met at the hood of the truck, while Kathy chatted with Sharon. There was a problem. While driving over to the scene, Bob heard over the police scanner that this fire was a code 10-200: a fire where drugs were involved. And it was hard to ignore a conclusion that hung in the air: suspicious fire + transient residents + trailer park= meth lab fire. Bob and Tim spoke in low voices, and there were many unfinished sentences and pauses. A meth fire meant that it was dangerous for anyone to go back into the house. And while Red Cross volunteers give aid to anyone who needs it, Tim and Bob were a little hesitant to hand over a debit card with a few hundred dollars to possible drug addicts.

Tim decided to get rooms at a hotel for the three, and next morning, volunteers would get them cleanup kits, grocery money, and vouchers for clothes at Goodwill. Tim gave the hotel information to Sharon and Phoenix as they got in their car.
“I don’t know if this piece of shit will get us there,” said Sharon.
“You’ve got our number. Please call us if you have any problems,” said Tim.

A car drove up with a mustached man at the wheel. Lindsey waved off the volunteers and hopped into the car. “I don’t need a place to stay,” she said. “I have my boyfriend.” She drove off.

And the street was empty. I don’t know if Sharon, Phoenix and Lindsey will show up tomorrow morning. Perhaps they will disappear, with only the Red Cross paperwork to mark that they were here. And perhaps Lindsey was cooking meth and started the fire. But I felt no sense of justice. For whatever these people may have done, this life that they led was no life at all. And it was a life that no one deserved.

I couldn’t help but think how people could be upended so easily. And I kept thinking of Sharon’s words as we drove away from the trailer park.

“You know,” said Sharon. “Me and some co-workers had gone out to dinner tonight. To celebrate a birthday. And I thought, how nice it was for once, to go out to dinner and have some good food. I thought for once, things were looking up.”

Photo provided by bas3lin3 of stock.xchng photo (


Joy said...

That's tough reading. And has got to be hard work too. Your writing style really brought me in to the story.

seastartrue said...

Glad you mentioned your blog to me yesterday. I found it through tigger (sister, duh).

It really makes you pause and think about decisions each of us make everyday. I agree, no life at all.

I love your writing, I'm bias, but you know it's not just me.

Love ya
grandmother to your kids