from FIREWORK


The anchorman says, “In the interest of good taste.”

The street reporter calls it a rental property. “A child,” she says. “A man and a woman...who may or may not be husband and wife.”

We can’t see all the words. We see a man wearing a blue smock. Behind him are shelves of typewriters with little tags wired to them.

“I’m the first one in the door,” he says. “I’m the last one out.” Probably he was the first to see it. He called 911 and and started greasing carriage returns.

A sign in the window: “We dont speak to Reporters.” Some of the neighbors do but nobody saw or heard anything. They stand in front doors and on porches, looking hastily dressed for an appearance. A woman still in her bathrobe: “We turn in early on a school night.” Their next-door neighbor, she adds, is never home.

She says they seem like nice people. She says, “They keep to themselves.”

You can see certain words, a name, crude figures, but the shots are composed so that other words are intimated in fragments, or missing entirely. The pace of the editing is rapid, like a movie trailer.

A boy and a girl pretend to wait for a school bus—the children of the woman in the bathrobe, perhaps. “A prank, like,” the boy says. “Like trick or treat.” We watch the girl watching him talk.

The car, the windows. Lines of rough grammar that bend around corners. Some of it is blurred, washed out, almost shimmers; they must have done something to the video.

“With the aid of digital technology,” the anchorman says. “For those who might be offended.”

“The owner could not be reached,” the street reporter says. She conducts interviews in a trench coat, nodding emphatically. She is attractive but not glamorous; energetic, likeable, down to earth.

“Residents say this has to be the work of outsiders.”

“People are people,” the man in the blue smock says. “What’s that outfit up from California?” They’ve set up headquarters in the west suburbs. (We don’t see him trying to think of the name, or saying that a Selectric has more than three thousand moving parts.)

“My kids play with their kid,” the woman in the bathrobe says.

A police spokesman, a spokesman for an anti-bias group. A former skinhead whose face is a shadow.

“On condition of anonymity,” the street reporter says.

(We don’t see the girl at the bus stop imitating the dead cat in the parking lot: “His eyes were made of ants.” Her tongue lolls in footage that will not be seen. She will not be heard describing the two women who live together at the turnaround, who could be mother and daughter but are not.)

The street reporter stands at the corner with her microphone, police cars and yellow tape behind her.

“Until that happens,” she says.

“Back to you,” she says. In the studio the anchorman shakes his head. On a brighter note, he says, it looks like the dry weather might be around for a couple of days. He turns to the staff meteorologist.

The man from Hate Crimes wanted to know if they were married. Littlebit asked what difference it made. He asked if they rented or owned.

“What difference do that make either?” she said.

“We’re not married,” Jelonnek said.

Everything is important, the man from Hate Crimes said, but they didn’t have to answer anything they didn’t want to. He wore a tie. His partner wore a turtleneck.

“Police report says there’s a child,” she said. Miss D was still at school.

“Should we have kept her home?” Jelonnek said. Her emphatic knocking, like she’d forgotten something. She forgot things sometimes.

“We can always talk to her another time,” the man from Hate Crimes said; he did most of the talking. He didn’t look like a cop. His partner was a young woman who watched him attentively while he spoke, as though she were in training. She wrote things down in pencil. They both wore windbreakers with the words SPECIAL UNIT printed on the back, and they had ID badges strung around their necks. Jelonnek wondered if they both carried guns.

Littlebit wouldn’t let them use a tape recorder.

They sat at the table where Jelonnek and Littlebit and Miss D sometimes ate dinner, though not always together. Language and yellow tape surrounding them on four sides, words inverted on the other side of the glass. Hieroglyphic. They’d taken pictures. Everyone else was gone.

When did you become aware a crime had been committed?

The phone rang. It was the girl from the property manager; Jelonnek wasn’t sure how they’d found out. She asked him if he and everyone else were okay. On behalf of the property manager she expressed concern, ourage, and sympathy, in this order. The owner was in Europe, she told him. They were insured.

“We’re taking bids,” she said. “We’ll try to get a contractor out there today.”

Littlebit had walked around the whole house and read every word. They’d covered every wall. She didn’t say anything, just went inside and called the prophet. At the Apostolic Faith Church (Body of Jesus Christ of the Newborn Assembly), the clergy were referred to as prophets.

The woman from Hate Crimes smiled carefully when you looked at her. She made a mistake, corrected it, and Jelonnek felt the tip of her tongue on the eraser.

“Tomorrow at the latest,” the property manager said.

Why do you think this incident happened?

 The man from Hate Crimes asked about the neighbors. “Any arguments, harassment, verbal confrontation prior to this morning?” He asked if Miss D was having any problems at school.

“She behind is all,” Littlebit said.

Jelonnek said the neighbors seemed okay.

“Somebody liked to mail us a rat one time.”

Jelonnek told them about the kids who had tried to sell them a magazine subscription.

The woman from Hate Crimes scratched down the details, the man said they would pursue every possibility. He looked like a math teacher.

Studies have shown there to be five categories of perpetrator.

“This state’s a hotbed,” the man from Hate Crimes said. He recited the names of certain groups and asked Jelonnek and Littlebit if they’d heard of any of them.

“Christian what?” Littlebit said.

“Posse Comitatus,” the man from Hate Crimes said, and named the names. One was familiar and Jelonnek remembered the TV repairman who’d hosted a public access show on cable. Another one, exotically foreign, belonged to a man who’d been beaten to death with a baseball bat on the northeast side.

“Ethiopian,” the man from Hate Crimes said. “Don’t even consider themselves black.”

“Guess it ain’t up to them,” Littlebit said, and didn’t say anything about the time she’d been Maced downtown.

But why hadn’t they called the police themselves?

The show had apparently been canceled.

The phone rang again. The church wanted to know if there was anything they could do. The man from Hate Crimes nodded approvingly. Jelonnek watched him put his gun in Littlebit’s mouth.

“Grass roots,” he said. Organized resistance at the community level was the best deterrent. Neighborhood coalitions, block watches, rallies. The force had a civil rights officer who could get them in touch with certain groups. Advocates.

He used the word proactive, but Jelonnek didn’t ask what that meant.

“So what brought you out here?” the man from Hate Crimes asked.

“Our business,” Littlebit said.

Jelonnek sighed. “They’re trying to help.”

“They police,” Littlebit said. “Can’t help that.”

The man from Hate Crimes stood. He was going to canvass the street, interview neighbors, see what anyone saw. His partner had some follow-up. He left his card and zipped his windbreaker.

“This kind of incident almost never repeats itself at the same location.” He told them what their success rate was in apprehending perpetrators.

“Try to enjoy the sunshine while it lasts,” he said.

“Let it rain,” Littlebit said. “Wash they word away.”

He saw himself out. The woman from Hate Crimes followed up. “Ever notice any large groups of youths, male or female, hanging out on or near the property?” she asked, and took Jelonnek between her breasts.

They would not take no for an answer.

The contractor didn’t come on Thursday. Friday morning a man pulled up in a pickup truck, walked once around the house and drove off. Later the property manager called and said there was a problem with the original contractor, they were sending someone else out as soon as possible. They didn’t say what the problem was.

Friday afternoon Jelonnek looked out the living room window and saw someone standing near the front of the house with a spray can. He went outside and recognized the young guy who lived down the street with a young woman and a baby. They drove a microbus with Grateful Dead bumper stickers. The young guy wore a red bandanna and was holding a bottle in the other hand. He put it down to tell Jelonnek his name. He said he sometimes painted houses in the summer—he said they’d be happy to help.

“Property manager’s sending someone around,” Jelonnek said.

The young guy nodded. He had a dust mask pulled down around his neck. He kept shaking the can, you could hear the bead rattling inside it. “Hope the weather holds up,” he said. “You ever paint in the rain?”

“A guy come out this morning...” Jelonnek shrugged. “Now they’re sending someone else by. What’s that?”

The young guy popped the cap off and put on his mask. He was someone with a spray can once again. “Step back,” he said, “this stuff’ll blind you.” He aimed the can at the siding and sprayed part of a word. The skin of the letter bubbled and hissed, bled down the wall as if disintegrating under its own terrible magic. It gave off a choking smell.

Littlebit looked out the door: “Amen.”

It wasn’t going to disappear, the young guy said behind the mask. You just wanted to fade it, back it down a little. Keep it from ghosting.

“I don’t know,” Jelonnek said. “The contractor—”

“It’s up to you,” the young guy said. It would just make their job easier—as long as they didn’t wait too long. You can paint in the rain, he said, but nobody wants to.

“It’s up to you,” he said.

“Ain’t nobody else doing anything,” Littlebit said. “What they gonna say, put the words back on?”

The young guy went home and got a ladder. After you neutralized it you could just rinse it or wipe it off. The first can didn’t go very far, and Jelonnek went with the young guy to Home Depot for more. He bought a mask. When they got back the contractor still hadn’t shown but there were more visitors. They introduced themselves, though Jelonnek had met a couple of them the day before; they’d dropped by after the people from Hate Crimes left. He heard their names again.

Tomorrow, they said, as if it had already been decided. They said they wouldn’t take no for an answer—it wasn’t just about painting a house. Jelonnek would rather have held out for professionals. You could just take it easy while someone else took care of it, you didn’t even have to be there. (And wouldn’t they expect him to help?) But the contractor still hadn’t arrived and the people from Hate Crimes said you should get rid of it within twenty-four hours and they seemed to have made up their minds anyway.

 He called the girl who managed the property and explained the situation. She just sounded relieved, and said they would pay for the paint.

Saturday it rained once, early, and there was intermittent sunshine the rest of the day. The young guy who’d brought the remover was the first to come back. He brought his wife and their baby, who had some kind of Indian name and was old enough to stand but couldn’t yet walk. They had a bagful of rags and Jelonnek and the young guy went around the house wiping off the siding, getting rid of cobwebs and the gray shell of a wasp nest now writhing with small green caterpillars. Littlebit let the young guy’s wife unfold a playpen in the living room. She told Miss D to keep an eye on the baby. Then she stood outside with her arms folded while the young guy’s wife helped prep the siding.

The lady who lived next to the business that repaired office machines and who had been on the news brought her husband and two children across the street. They brought baked beans and potato salad and chicken wings. The wife of the young guy had made chili with no meat in it.

“Do I like that?” Miss D said. From further down the street came an ex-biker who lived in a tiny one-bedroom house and gave people massages for a living. He rolled his own cigarettes, and thanked Jelonnek for having the only car on the street uglier than his own. Jelonnek had never seen him before yesterday.

They brought pails, brushes, rollers, trays and screens, a stepladder, extension ladder, Doritos, store-brand cola, some kind of casserole. Drop cloths, sandpaper, putty knives, razor blades, tape. They wore caps and old clothes and everyone seemed to know what to do, even the kids. One coat today, they said, the finish tomorrow. If the weather held.

“Cross your fingers,” the young guy said.

“I’d as soon put my hands together,” Littlebit said. “He take care of the rest.”

“I see He’s not big on recycling,” the ex-biker said. He was looking at the beer cans in the garbage. “You want your grandkids playing in a landfill?”

“The city’ll pick it up for free,” the young guy’s wife said.

Littlebit looked at Jelonnek. “What that mean, some grandkids?”

The young guy masked off the windows.

They’d already bought the paint. Acrylic latex, specially made for cold weather, and the color almost matched. Jelonnek watched from the edge of the lawn. The young guy used a roller, working in diagonal strokes his wife filled in with a brush. You could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra. “Jump in anytime,” the ex-biker said. “It’ll keep you warm.” Littlebit went in and out of the house with her arms still folded. Someone stuck a brush in Jelonnek’s hand. He hadn’t painted a house since he’d briefly helped the old man years before. It hadn’t gone well then and his skills hadn’t improved with time. The husband of the woman who’d been on the news gave him some pointers. Follow the grain, stroke from dry to wet. He owned a small carpet-cleaning business of which he was sole employee, and he was soft-spoken and barely said anything he didn’t have to. His wife filled his silence. She stayed home with the kids now, she told everyone, but once she’d managed a Red Lobster.

“Don’t quit your day job,” the ex-biker told Jelonnek. He was standing on the step-ladder with a cigarette in his lips, hand in pocket, painting under the eaves, completely balanced and relaxed, and Jelonnek looked on marveling that a man could do things beyond nature naturally, as if born to them, and wondered what he might be born to, and he wondered if that cigarette would ignite turpentine if he dumped a can of it over the ex-biker’s head. But it was latex paint and there was no turpentine.

“Need some help?” Two women stood at the edge of the lawn wearing overalls. They were the women who lived at the cul-de-sac and could have been mother and daughter but were not. Littlebit turned her head and made one of her sounds.

“About time,” the young guy said.

“It ain’t,” Littlebit said.

“We heard there was free food,” the younger woman said, but they were holding a cooler between them. They were dressed identically.

“That’s alright,” Littlebit said. “We good.” They looked at her. For once the woman who’d been on the news had nothing to say.

“The more the merrier,” the young guy’s wife said.

“It’s her house,” the older woman said.

“Yeah it is,” Littlebit said. “We good. Thank you anyway.”

The women lingered a while, then left. “Got something against them?” the ex-biker said.

“I ain’t got nothing for em,” Littlebit said.

Jelonnek loaded his brush.

They had the front and two sides done when someone said, “Who’s hungry?” They ate outside and the wings and potato salad went first. Jelonnek didn’t have any of the chili but the woman who’d been on the news couldn’t say enough. She never could. Miss D tried it when no one was looking, made a face and went in the house.

“So how did you two meet?” the young guy’s wife said.

“Kind of by accident,” Jelonnek said.

“It wasn’t no accident,” Littlebit said. Miss D screamed and ran out of the house and they could hear the baby screaming as loud.

“He bit on my stomach!” she cried. The young guy and his wife went in the house and came out with the baby. The young guy’s wife was carrying him and was terribly sorry but she looked angry, kept looking at something on the child’s face.

His name was Algonquian for “He laughs,” and Littlebit said, “He ain’t laughin now.”

The woman who’d been on camera and lived next to the business that serviced office machines asked how old Miss D was.

“You’re kidding,” she said, and Miss D took her thumb out of her mouth.

Then they sat in the living room and talked about things other than painting, because that wasn’t really what it was about, was it? A faint, well-intentioned smell of sweat. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone and the children sat on the floor. They discussed neighborhood watches with alternating shifts, petitioning the police to beef up patrols, also used the word proactive. They surmised who the culprits might be, and everyone agreed it could not have been anyone who lived on the street; kids in cars used the turnaround at night, it might be someone who’d brought in a typewriter for repair. The woman who’d been on the news kept looking around at the furniture, the TV, the carpet. She preferred to stand.

Jelonnek thought they might have come up the gully behind the house, but his mouth was full of baked beans. It was the best thing there and Littlebit agreed.

“Put her foot in it,” she said.

 The ex-biker went to his house to get a radio, and the young guy went with him. They were gone a while, and when they came back they seemed sluggish and glassy-eyed and Littlebit glared at the burnt smell of what they’d been up to.

They brought a football too, but didn’t throw it.

After the break they painted to music and didn’t talk much. The young guy’s wife stayed in the house with the baby, and the young guy used the brush and the roller at the same time. Littlebit decided to help then and the lady who’d been on the news and had once managed a Red Lobster showed her what she was doing wrong.

“That’s too much like work,” Littlebit said. “I got my own way to go.”

The radio had a tape player and Miss D put in a cassette. They started hearing one of the words that had been sprayed on the house, and Littlebit turned it off, took the cassette out and unspooled the tape with long jerks of her arm. Then she went back and dipped her roller in a tray.

The boy and girl who’d also been on the news said they were tired.

“You’re painting the paint,” their mother said. A cat prowled for scraps.

The ex-biker turned the radio back on. He and the young guy’s wife moved together to it and Miss D covered her mouth at their graceless lurching. In the evening she was told to take off all her clothes in the bathroom, and Littlebit went in behind her with a rolled up TV guide and shut the door.

Sunday morning was gray but it still hadn’t rained, and only the men returned to put on the second coat. Littlebit was in church with Miss D, ostensibly holding up the sky with prayer. They painted the trim the same color. Nobody brought anything to eat, and Jelonnek paid for pizza and beer. Littlebit and Miss D had still not returned when they rattled the ladders for the last time, folded up their drop cloths, cleaned off their brushes and wrapped them in paper. They would keep in touch (they were neighbors!) and everybody shook hands. Most of the beer was left and Jelonnek drank it after they’d gone, and he was passed out on the couch when Littlebit and Miss D came home with the prophet and two of his associates from the Apostolic Faith Church (Body of Jesus Christ of the Newborn Assembly). He slept through the prayers and the holding of hands and the blessing of the house, and did not wake up even when a drop of anointed oil was placed on his forehead.

The property manager called the following week. The owner had driven by. He had not approved the color so they couldn’t take anything off the rent, nor would their insurance cover his vehicle. They reimbursed him for the paint. Jelonnek cashed the check and found a place that would paint your car for ninety-nine dollars. 

Contributor

Eugene Marten

EUGENE MARTEN'S FIREWORK is due out from Tyrant Books in the spring.

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