By: Jennifer Benningfield
Fourteen months, and still Donita had not experienced a night of uninterrupted sleep. The first nine of those months could be simply–perhaps rightly–attributed to the fetus developing inside of her body. Adapting to life in a new state, in a new region of the country, could share in the blame also.
Her system had experienced all four seasons, with attendant issues–fiery feet, icy hands, aching bones and aging flesh. Summer had just found its footing on the back of spring, when it happened.
The two-story home lacked air conditioning. Thus, open windows and one of the two floor fans sufficed for three young children. The other fan shuddered in the master bedroom, where the two largest figures of the household slept. Donita and husband Monty were large by most standards of the adult human, she built like a refrigerator box and he like a hoarder of bowling balls. Comical figure notwithstanding, Monty ran the show. His words hit the air loudest and his feet hit the ground heaviest, so naturally his was the body sprawled on the side of the bed closest to the fan, as his wife lay nearer to the crib containing their fourth and youngest child.
Daughter slept much tighter than mother, and Donita could do little beyond stew in ambivalence as her legs twitched, somehow never striking those of the man beside her. Blankets had been folded up and banished to the closet, one less motion for her to make as she slowly sat up. She gingerly slid her left leg along the sheets. Once both bare feet touched the carpet, Donita stilled. She closed her eyes, all the better to hear the respirations of her husband, to assure they remained steady and continuous.
They were heavy and laborious, which suited Donita fine. Everyone slept better than her. Everyone in the house, everyone on the block, everyone around the world. She thought better of a sigh and rose to her feet. The light filtering through scant curtains guided her the five feet to the crib. She peered down, able to make out the ways daughter took after father.
The idea that staring at a peaceful infant could induce serenity took hold. It didn’t matter that the color of her hair or the shape of her nose was indiscernible; Donita could just watch the up and down and listen to the in and out and let images frolic inside the margins, until her eyes grew heavy and she could return to bed gratefully.
Nothing of the sort transpired.
As quietly as she could manage without having to rise onto the tips of her toes, Donita exited the bedroom and moved down the narrow hallway, stopping outside the bathroom door briefly before pivoting and backtracking.
She avoided pills (for the sake of others) and gave up counting sheep after the night she’d made it to one hundred without pause. At least her children slept well. Donita paused in front of their room, door open as it always was–just less noise, everyone agreed, which hadn’t been a concern until they moved in, until Leanne arrived.
In less than eight hours the family would be outdoors, enjoying what was projected to be a lovely day at the nearest park, followed by a backyard barbecue. Chicken, corn on the cob, homemade potato salad (with the mustard and sugar base that Donita insisted upon). D.J. loved the park, loved dirt and grease, any substance he could smudge and smear. Driven mad with anticipation, he’d run breathless circles around the kitchen table, amusing his mother and annoying his sisters as they pored over the family photos, seeing which ones were fit for a protective album once a protective album could be squeezed into the budget. They’d spent in excess of sixty minutes looking and laughing, nudging and nodding, until bedtime….
Had they remembered to return the boxes to the closet?
Donita started towards the stairs. Before she could set foot one on the top step, though, her body froze. For several seconds Donita stood still, palms massaging her hips, eyes losing and regaining focus as she struggled to recall her actions of just three hours prior. What had she done after shooing Olivia and Pamela upstairs? At a reminisce impasse, she sighed and reached out her left hand for the banister.
Midway down, Donita froze once more, stopped this time by a bitter, cryptic odor. She took a single breath, deep and long and unimpeded, and it would be quite some time before she took another.
“Monty! There’s a fire in the living room. It’s a bad one, we have to get out!”
“What the hell time is it?”
Trembling nose to toes, Donita flung open the top two dresser drawers and threw their contents at the clothes basket sitting in front of the closet. Behind her, Monty grunted his way onto his feet.
“Can you bring out this basket? I have to get the kids outside.”
“Did you call nine-one-one?”
“Of course! Hurry!”
“Is that would you told them?”
Feeling weightless save for the fifteen pounds held against her chest, Donita ignored her husband and returned to the middle bedroom. She’d given her older children less than a minute to fill handbags and book bags.
“All right. Line up and follow me. Do not stop walking until I stop walking. Do you understand?”
The flames and smoke made leaving through the front door of the house ill-advised, but not impossible. Donita led the children towards the kitchen, where she spotted the three boxes atop the table.
No time. Go time. No go no go go go now.
Right, right, straight ahead.
Donita led them through the front gate, the front yard and then across the street, where the homes were a bit older, stood a bit taller and appeared a bit nicer.
“Okay. Stay right here.”
“I’m not quite sure, honey.”
She sighed, noticing none of them had the wherewithal to put on shoes–she hoped Monty wouldn’t be too angry.
Donita grabbed the clothes basket and set it on the stone steps leading from the townhouse directly behind them.
“You call nine-one-one?” he asked, sounding as if he’d taken a moment or two to bask in the smoke before leaving the house.
“Of course, I told you I did.”
“Watch your mouth. Listen! Here they come. Hear that? Jesus. How the hell did it start?”
“I went downstairs to get a drink and I saw fire in the front window.”
“Fire in the front winda? What the hell would cause a fire in the front winda? What’s her problem?”
Donita turned and saw Pamela, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, practically convulsing. Donita hustled over and placed a hand to the child’s trembling back, pressing firmly against the thin fabric of her pajama top. She began rubbing small, firm circles, uttering a rapid iteration of low, soft words intended to comfort. Once satisfied that the young girl wouldn’t collapse, Donita looked over to Olivia, to assess her state. The older daughter’s gaze would not meet her mother’s, so mother acquiesced.
“One of the boxes of pictures,” came the timid reply.
“When did you take it?”
“When you were opening the door to let us out.”
A slight breeze.
A slight smile.
Two fire trucks and a single tanker roared onto the street. Donita saw her husband’s body, imposing even in repose, jerk upward into a posture to swell the chest of any military man.
D.J. relinquished his wet grasp on his mother’s hand and wrapped two small arms around her left leg, burying his face against her hip, eyes squeezed shut. Donita looked down and resolved to buy the poor boy some night clothes that actually fit.
She looked back at the house.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, grateful for the anchor. “Maybe they can save the upstairs,” she said, louder, but already Monty was wandering off. She turned to appreciate the other homes in the neighborhood, all of that untouched cold brick.
To appreciate Olivia, now sitting on the sidewalk, pulling a hairbrush from her purse, running it casual through long blonde for several minutes, pausing every dozen strokes or so to relax her hand.
To appreciate Monty, twenty yards away, standing in an unoccupied parking space, glaring at the firefighters as they performed. One, six and a half feet tall, a gray mustache drooping down the sides of his mouth, approached to ask if anything living was still inside the house.
“No,” Monty snarled. “Reckon we woulda told you that already.”
Donita did not extricate her son from her side and approach her husband to respectfully admonish him for his attitude with men simply doing their job, a job that most people frankly wouldn’t be physically or mentally able to do.
A burning house and flashing lights made for a lurid attraction. A few broke from the pack, not content to simply gape.
“Donita! Donita! Oh my God. What happened?”
“I’m not sure. It must have been something electrical….”
“Exposed wires, you think?”
“Charlie! I thought you weren’t coming out.”
“Ehh. These older buildings, you have to be careful with the wiring. It took me a whole year back and forth with our landlord–“
“Oh thank God you guys are safe!”
Adeline Smith, troubled and stylish at all hours. Donita cursed her own clothing, specifically the “technicolor dream robe,” a garishly-striped piece of nightwear not meant to be seen outside one’s own walls.
“Is there anything I can do for you? How’s the little one?”
“She’s a heavy sleeper,” Donita chuckled, moving the blanket-clad babe from the crook of her right arm to that of her left.
“Wow. You’re very lucky. All things considered.”
“At least it doesn’t look like the upstairs will be affected that much.”
“Oh it will. I mean probably. Smoke damage at least. Won’t anybody be living there for awhile.”
Donita could do little but shrug, never having placed much stock in luck.
“Do you know how it happened?”
“No. I just walked downstairs to get a drink and….”
“Oh my. You won’t be without a place to live for long. That’s one good thing.”
She knew. What God would allow a family of six, in the world’s finest and proudest country, to go without for long?
“I mean you could’ve burned to death. Or asphyxiated. Which one’s worse, I wonder.”
“Charlie Smith, what in the world is wrong with you?”
If her aghast words had been a source of chagrin, Charlie didn’t show it by shutting up. Instead he leaned an elbow against the roof of a car not his own and observed that a significant amount of time had passed since the last significant rainfall in the area. His wife met the other woman’s eyes to offer a silent apology.
Donita recoiled, mortified that her husband had cursed in front of their children in front of neighbors and strangers. She pressed the baby to her chest and watched warily as he turned to wet the sidewalk with the residue of words he wanted to bark out but couldn’t, his rage liquified and impotent.
She sighed and reminded herself: If he knew better, he would do better.
Donita lasted longer than the others in the game of watching the men in the big coats and hats direct water through the air. She’d focused on the action of one particular hose and let the acrid aroma in the air steer her thoughts into alleys with more litter than lighting, rubber tires slashed and burned, the opening blocked by a row of oil drums.
Much more pleasant had been the smell in the kitchen just hours before–the fish, the hush puppies, the aromas drifted throughout the entire first floor, and even if the kids grumbled a bit, Donita knew they were exaggerating.
Irritated by the intermittent looks of sympathy from their neighbors, Donita gently suggested to D.J. that he join his father. (“It’ll be okay, sugar bear.”) Freed, she approached her daughters, both now sitting on the townhouse steps, gabbing incomprehensibly. Admittedly, fortune had smiled down upon her family, no matter how tight-lipped.
“She’s still asleep?”
“Of course she’s asleep, she’s a baby. All babies do is sleep and eat and cry. All the time.”
“I was talking to Mom, Livvy, not you.”
Donita looked down at the bundle in her arms, thinking how blessed the child was, to be oblivious and serene at such a time. To be asleep.
“Ain’t even take an hour. Ain’t that about a bitch. Ain’t even take an hour to mess our lives up. And here I thought we was done with movin’.”
Neither Monty nor Donita knew Cliff or Faye all that well–a young, childless couple who worked out of the city was the extent of it–but sometimes negotiating foreign terrain with strangers couldn’t be avoided.
Their home didn’t have a second bedroom, but it did have a spacious living room with a coffee table that was easy to relocate. Faye brought out pillows, sheets and quilts so the kids could make pallets. Donita and Monty quickly worked out which of them would join the party on the floor, and which would take the couch.
Unlike his sisters, D.J. had shown no interest in convincing his mother that the baby should sleep next to him. Donita hadn’t believed her mother when she insisted that boys were much less stressful to raise than girls, but she’d learned the lesson thoroughly over eleven years.
“Goddamn I could use a drink. Oh it ain’t like I’m actually gonna look for some, ‘Nita. I’m gonna pick up the phone and call the landlord.”
“He’s probably asleep,” she observed, voice as plain as her clothing wasn’t.
“Well…he’s about to wake up. If it was caused by something we did wrong, probl’y what’ll happen is he’ll pay for the damages and then we’ll have to reimburse him. If it was his negligence, though, like somethin’ wrong with the house, we won’t pay a thing. Except rent on a new place to live.”
“It was so nice of them to let us stay. We should do something nice for them.”
“Should we? How about we get our lives back in order first? ‘Fore we go worryin’ ’bout anyone else.”
“I, I didn’t mean–“
“I know what you didn’t mean. Now hush, I’m tryin’ to think of how I’m gonna put this.”
Minutes piled up, squirming and undistinguished. The pressure to sleep sent portentous messages to Donita’s eyes and lungs, her chin bouncing off her chest several times before the harsh rap of knuckles against lucite stole the promise away.
“I been thinking…it could have been the wiring. I hope it wasn’t, though. Goddamn Charlie. You ‘membered yer purse, didn’t ya?”
“It’s in the basket.”
“Go grab me a cigarette.”
Donita did not clear her throat before not speaking the words burning a hole in her throat.
“I forgot to turn off the fan in the living room window before I came to bed. So all of this is my fault.”
Mental inventory…practically compulsory. Vinyls, foodstuffs, books, toys…
A dead woman’s jewelry.
“Either destroyed outright…or damaged from the smoke. Then ya just have to toss it, ya know. Can’t salvage it once the smoke gets to it.”
He plucked the cigarette from between his lips.
“I got my father’s badge. Put it in the basket o’ clothes.”
“It’s the only thing I have worth anything.”
They had just purchased a brand-new set of dishes, after she’d had that nasty fall in the kitchen and sent a full tray clattering onto the floor.
“I like how they have their kitchen decorated. The curtains are really cute.”
Monty could have swung his head around to confirm his wife’s assertion, but didn’t. The effort to keep from pummeling it into pulp was draining too much energy.
“Things happen, Monty. We just have to deal with this and try our best to keep on.”
He looked then as he so often did–as if he were being gnawed on from the inside out. Eyes aglare, mouth agape, he stated again the desire for to drown brown with brown.
“You don’t need that,” his wife murmured, gaze drifting to his hands, resting on the table in loose fists. She braved his face and what she saw–the shame slathered over his jowls, the fatigue pinching the corners of his eyes–caused a stinging in her chest. All he had done to move beyond the agrarian lifestyle he’d known since birth…Monty worked so hard, so long, preaching and practicing loyalty, providing for a family larger than he’d anticipated. Donita was no foolish little wife; she readily agnized the flaws of the man she’d made lives with. But no bad decision, no foul word, no thoughtless action, changed the fact of his fundamental goodness.
Monty grumbled as he staggered to his feet, belly straining against its flimsy white cotton cover. Donita grimaced as he walked away. He’d never been a swift mover, and that unpleasantness in Texas had only served to slow him further.
The city was supposed to improve things. A place where you didn’t need to keep a machete for the black snakes that followed you indoors if you weren’t careful.
One shaking hand lifted eyeglasses onto her forehead while the other wiped brusquely at each cheek.
Maybe adjustment was on the horizon. She’d certainly prayed long enough and hard enough. Under a stranger’s roof, unable to unleash, forced to keep a dry and level head, perhaps Monty would begin to know better. His galloping pessimism, his refusal to take life by the day, the way words came from his mouth like black smoke escaping through a crack in the crystal ball he and only he apparently had access to…all of that would change. Maybe.
Not too terribly long after the oldest member of the family left a message on the landlord’s answering machine and retired to a couch barely fit to contain him, the youngest member of the family announced her hunger. Once the repast was finished, Donita found herself reluctant to return the baby to her place on the pallet.
The uncertainty coursing through her cords did not, blessedly, transfer to the infant in her arms. Hiding from her husband the strong suspicion that the fire–the conflagration which could have killed them all–was due to her negligence was possibly right, possibly wrong, but soon would not matter. He’d discover the terrible truth. An investigator would inform the landlord, who would inform Monty, who would become inflamed and rage circuitously, rendering his wife lightheaded and left-footed.
Then, things would change. Again. A new place, a new start. Again. Opportunities tended to be exciting and frightening things, but as long as a person had faith, then things would fall back into place.
Donita looked over at Leanne, her little lips quirked into a miniature sneer. If only Monty could see her, his little baby, just as she was at that moment, she could expose the resentments and ease the stresses.
Only a fool would, she thought, giving in to the pressure.
Donita slept, and she dreamt. She was inside their new home, directing the kitchen. The smell of the coffee and the cleaning agents competed in a game with no losers. The frilly yellow curtains remained folded on the counter, not to be touched for many hours. Donita clutched the edges of the sink, craned her neck up, and closed her eyes for the caresses of the sun.