A dirty jar on a top shelf falls over, drops to the concrete floor and explodes. Glass shards fly… my mother’s bare legs… my baby sister…
My Grandfather was a yardman who worked for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. But he got a foot caught in a coupling and had to pick a new line of work. He and Grandmom and my mother moved to Philadelphia in ’31, to a row house on a narrow side street full of Polacks and Eye-tals. He worked 10-hour shifts at a high-whining machine that pulled wire. Turned him almost deaf. During the war, the plant converted to munitions. There was an accident, an explosion.
Grandpop’s stuff lay stored in the garage, a corrugated metal building off the back alley, where a box containing his souvenirs from the Great War called to me from a high shelf. I stood on an upended bucket and reached for it. “Get down from there,” Mother said. I elbowed a jar aside and toppled backwards, and she lunged forward to catch me while shielding Becky from flying glass.
Becky fills the rinse tub then feeds wet clothes into the wringer. Her hand disappears between the hard rollers. Finger and wrist bones crackle. She screams.
Between WWII and Korea, our family moved in with Grandmom. I was eight, but pipsqueak Becky ran the show; the rest of us were there for her amusement. She’d plead: “Poppy, make me ’nother pitcher.” My Father would unclip the grease pencil from his butcher’s smock and sketch a horse, a cow, or the dollhouse he promised to build her. At night, he’d play piano with Becky next to him on the bench, his big hands pounding the yellowed keys, each covering more than an octave—Love Letters in the Sand, Red Roses for a Blue Lady, The Little White Cloud That Cried.
Becky took piano lessons, classical, hours, years of practice, recitals. She could read anything, was a natural. “I want to play with a symphony someday,” she told Mother while they did laundry in the garage. “It’s gonna be my ticket outa Philly.” I could see her fingers move in time over an invisible piano though I could not see her from beneath the hood of our ’53 Chevy Bel Air. “You’d better keep practicing, Beck, ’cause that ticket of yours won’t even get ya outta Kensington.” She turned her face away from the wringer and stuck out her tongue at me. The rollers caught her thin fingers.
Carmen catches my hand then lies back, her body a study of shadows against the cool tuck-and-roll. I brush my fingers across her quivering stomach. She moans.
My Father’s hands shook so bad, from being sliced open by knives and band saws, that he’d stopped sketching. But he showed me how and I got good enough to attend the Museum School of Art, on a scholarship, looking to become the next great illustrator for the New York agencies. I lived at home, which got tricky when I had girls over—not that there were many, not that my folks were prudish. Our family had developed a bawdy sense of decorum from living in a row house and listening to the neighbors on all sides go at it… either threatening to kill each other or screwing on sweltering nights. In either case, Mother’d turned up the TV volume and we’d ignore the clamor.
In my senior year, I dated the model from my figure drawing class. She was dark, not Negro, but Puerto Rican mixed with something else. When she modeled nude, nobody cut class. Painting her, I thought of Natalie Wood in West Side Story and got excited, kept my artist’s smock loose so as not to embarrass myself. We were in the back seat of the car on a late Saturday afternoon. Carmen removed her panties. I entered her. Our thighs slapped together. Her moans filled the musky garage that smelled of old grease.
The slap of Father’s hand against the side of my face explodes in my ear. He fakes a hook and hits me square on the chin with a right cross. Lights out.
I faked my way through my first couple jobs after college. For some reason, my talents didn’t impress the New York agencies. Then Carmen got pregnant and we had to move back to Philly and in with my parents and Granny. Becky had moved out, got her own apartment, and was working the perfume counter at Wanamakers, her left hand showing no sign of being crushed.
When our son was born in July, I took time off from my ad editor’s job at the Inquirer, but Mom and Granny stepped in to do the work and I was the odd man out. The newspaper became my refuge, and I stayed late and left for work early, trying to avoid restless nights with a colicky baby in that airless train car of a house.
Carmen and I argued, retreating to the garage for our donnybrooks. “We gotta get outta here, Bobby,” she yelled. “My cousin in Miami owns apartments. He’ll rent to us.” “We don’t even have enough money to drive there,” I yelled back, “and what would I do?” We continued going at it, both of us wet with sweat. Inside the house, the baby cried. Carmen moved toward the door: “Maybe I should just leave you and the kid. It’d be better for both—” I spun her around and slapped her hard across the face.
My Father slid inside the garage. He pushed me back then smacked me alongside the head. My cheeks burned, more from shame than anything. He came after me. I didn’t try to stop him.
The fire had burned the entire block. We climb out of the cab and enter the garage. I listen for the old sounds as I strike the match.
I stood on the balcony of our Seattle condo and watched an approaching winter storm. The phone rang. Carmen took the call and yelled at me to pick it up in the kitchen. “Did you see it on the news?” Becky said.
“Mom and Dad’s old house and the whole block burned.” “Christ, had they moved everything out?” I asked. “Yeah, all except the junk in the garage. That damn thing didn’t burn. Go figure.”
After years of coaxing, my parents had moved the month before, to a retirement home out the Avenue. They’d sold the old Chevy and had given the rest to Becky or to the Salvation Army, shipping a few photos and boyhood trinkets to me. “They’re really freaked out about the house,” Becky continued. “Can you and Carmen come east? It’s been a few years. Ted and I can put you up since the kids are away.”
I phoned our son in San Jose to let him know what was up. The red-eye flight to Philly was bumpy, the jet pushed around by strong crosswinds.
We slept the following day and didn’t make it to Madison Street until the next afternoon. “How’d this thing escape the fire?” Carmen asked, motioning to the garage. The neighborhood was gone, nothing but piles of rubble, like post-war Dresden. I keyed the padlock and opened the swinging doors. “I remember this place,” Carmen murmured. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Inside, the shelves were crammed with bottles and jars, a hoarding habit my Mother had never shaken. A tarp was thrown over the ancient wringer-washer. Paint cans, car wax, thinner and tools were dumped in a corner, rusting. The place smelled old. I smiled, remembering my afternoon delight with Carmen. But it was too quiet. Gone were the engine sounds, crying babies, tinkling pianos, arguing, moaning, the churn of machines, the flap of clothes hung out to dry on lines up and down the alley. The bell from a trolley on Allegheny Avenue sounded two blocks over. It was like I’d never heard it before. It was all wrong.
I pulled my Grandfather’s box of war junk off the shelf. Carmen caressed my shoulder and we kissed. A bucket of rags rested against the wall. She handed me the matches. I lit one and tossed it into the bucket. The flames flared and the tinder-dry frame caught fire. The crackling-popping sound of the garage burning followed us down the alley and out onto the wide boulevard.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skinny cat (his in-house critic). His short stories have been accepted by more than 100 publications including the Fifth Wednesday Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist—who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.