Don't Leave the Building When the Firebell Rings
The sun was falling early now that it was October, and a group that had collapsed into lawn chairs was debating - loudly and vigorously - the township rule that forbid bonfire-building in backyards. The dog, named Otis, had escaped from the bedroom and was scurrying around their feet, licking their toes. He’d become a source of corny jokes and good humor, especially as they drank more and more from the keg of beer on the back porch.
The food was spread out on the kitchen island, away from the dog’s reach. This did not stop the mutt from looking up at Allison, forlorn, as she reached for her fourth and then fifth serving of French bread and spinach dip. He beat his tail against the floor as she chewed and swallowed.
“How is it?” asked Kenneth, coming in from outside, holding two large plastic cups filled with beer. He was her date for the evening.
“Delicious,” she lied. Her friend Lilla, the maker of the spinach dip and hostess of the party, had a heavy hand with mayonnaise. “Fattening,” she said, lowering her voice.
Kenneth didn’t seem to know how to reply.
Allison wiped her hands on her skirt and accepted the beer he was offering. They stood awkwardly, looking out the sliding glass doors at the gathered group and the occasional glint of a glass under the outdoor light, turned on moments before. Lilla was standing by the picnic table, a plastic smile planted on her face and her too-frosted hair blowing back in wisps. She looked down at her husband, JC, and kicked him playfully in the knee. He raised his eyebrows and went back to what he was doing, which was staring into space and not talking to anyone.
Allison - who first met Lilla and JC the summer before her senior year of high school - had witnessed the intricacies of how their relationship and marriage had occurred. She’d even been there the moment they’d met, when JC had stopped Lilla in the Burger King parking lot to ask her what time it was, and she dug her Swatch out of the bottom of her purse to give him the answer. Then, he had given them both a ride home, with Lilla in the front seat beside him. Allison had taken the backseat, alone. The next day, Lilla had called from the phone in her parents’ bedroom to announce that she might be in love.
How odd it was that now Lilla and JC were parents themselves, and they had a master bedroom with a vibrating bed and Jacuzzi. Through the sliding glass doors, the two of them at the picnic table appeared as a little snapshot of life that Allison might paste into a scrapbook. Here, she would whisper, here is what happened to JC and Lilla. Once they were young but now JC is going bald and Lilla has gained so much weight -
“What do you think of this neighborhood?” Kenneth asked. “It seems like quite a nice place. Quiet and safe for the kids, I would guess.” He tilted his head to one side, polite. But she knew he was frustrated with her.
“I think they like it very much,” Allison replied. She placed her glass on the marble-topped kitchen island, taking in his shaggy light-brown eyebrows and pale blue eyes. Beads of sweat had congregated on his forehead.
“Would you like to go soon?” he asked.
“Maybe. Why, are you getting bored?”
Kenneth shrugged. “Not bored, but if you don’t want to go outside and talk to the others, then I don’t see why we should stay here in the kitchen.”
The sliding glass doors opened and Lilla came in, her lips twisted into a dissatisfied smirk. “Stay,” she demanded to the dog, holding back his wriggling body with her foot. “Damn dog,” she said, joining them at the island. They began a stilted conversation. Kenneth told Lilla about his job as a computer specialist.
“I wish you could fix our computer,” Lilla said, refilling a plastic bowl with corn chips.
“I could take a look.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to waste your time,” Lilla said. “It’s hopeless.” She met Allison’s eyes with a poignant stare that meant there was something she could not say. When Kenneth turned away from them to examine the refrigerator, she mouthed the word “porn,” and shook her head at something tragic. Allison knew the tragedy wasn’t the porn, but JC himself. He’d become a block of wood, a husband-mannequin who - Allison thought - was a bland flip-side of Lilla’s exuberance.
Outside, the bonfire had fallen into an innocent burn of crackling sticks and hopeful ashes.
That night, driving back to the city, Allison asked Kenneth if he thought someone could really have an addition to porn. “The way I look at it,” she said. “An addiction is biological. A physical craving. It’s only society that has grasped onto this idea of emotional addiction. It’s just a catch-all phrase for what we used to think of as bad habits.”
Kenneth’s driving was agonizingly slow, and it grew even slower as he pondered his response. “I think I disagree,” he said, finally, slowing for a light that was almost a quarter-mile away from them. “If anything, pornography causes a biological reaction even stronger than what alcohol or drugs could stir up in you.” He chuckled.
“True, maybe,” Allison said, opening her purse to check for her apartment keys. “Lilla says JC has a high interest in it, porn that is. That’s why she didn’t want you to look at their computer.”
“Aha,” Kenneth said, in a good-natured way. Then he pointed out a series of small, young trees along the roadside. “See there,” he said, “Those trees are all new. You know why?"
“No,” she said. “Why?”
“Rampert’s Disease. It happened last spring. Millions and millions of little worms produced millions and millions of tiny eggs. And the cycle went on and on, until the trees that had been there for decades were eaten alive. And it all happened in a single season.” He pressed his lips together and shook his head dolefully.
Allison pictured an infested tree, bulging with worms and eggs, branches falling into a rotting pile that would be collected and analyzed and ultimately thrown away, proof that the cycles of nature could be as self-destructive as any human’s. But nature couldn’t take anti-depressants or watch pornography.
“It’s like the story about the starfish washed up on the beach,” Allison said. “And the children stop to pick them up, even though the adults laugh. But still, they think that the starfish that go back to the ocean will thank them. Or that the satisfaction of saving a life, even a little life, is worth the trouble.” Her words were caught up in traffic as they crossed the bridge.
Kenneth seemed pleased at her reaction, but he hadn’t understood. “If you think that’s something, wait until you hear about the cement,” he said, lurching into a detailed story that involved something about the city government and cracking sidewalks. Allison focused on the road signs: Meadowbrook, Kinsley Highway, Yield, Rest Area Ahead, Stop. She was remembering the night she met Lilla, nearly twenty years ago, the night they’d seen a boy almost die at a punk rock concert. There had been a fight on the stage, and a group of skinheads had thrown an amplifier into the mosh pit. The skinny boy had been hit in the temple and fell to the ground, bleeding. Everyone thought he was dead until Lilla came up and slapped him across the cheek. Then, he grunted and opened his eyes. The two of them sat with the injured boy until the ambulance arrived and, after that, they agreed that fate had made them friends.
Allison waited a full week after the party before breaking up with Kenneth. She sent him an email message, a short one, that said only that she didn’t think they had “that special something,” required to make “it” work.
“He was kind of boring,” she told Lilla over the phone. “I mean, the most interesting thing he has to say was something about a tree disease.”
“Oh, I heard about that,” Lilla replied after shouting at one of her kids. “All those trees - they’d been around for decades. Wiped out in a matter of weeks.”
“Well, I’m moving on.”
“You like living alone, don’t you?”
“I’m not bothered by it.” Allison had a calm apartment on the fifteenth floor of a brick building. On weekend mornings, she would drink tea for hours, reading her art books and sketching whatever objects were lying about. In the drawing class she took on Wednesday evenings, the teacher had commended Allison’s still-life work, but frowned at her nudes, which emerged on the page with stubby limbs and lopsided torsos.
“You do draw lovely apples, though,” the teacher commented. “Perhaps you could move on to cats.”
A few weeks after Lilla’s party, Allison picked up the local news magazine and skimmed through the pages. In the back of the paper, after the Personals ads, was a section labeled Missed Connections.
Friday, the first one read, Juniper to Bonray. You: Pretty woman, lavender t-shirt, charm bracelet, straight blonde hair w/red streak, Celtic tattoo on ankle. Reading “Punk Planet,” w/Green Day on the cover. Your shoe was unbuckled. Me: Long, lean, John Lennon glasses. I was carrying a bag from Radio Shack. Were you thinking what I was? Reply to Box 341897Y.
She read the ad several times, picturing the Radio Shack man on the subway. In her imagination, he was a shy fellow with papery skin, thin eyelashes, and a mournful stare. She sighed and put down the newspaper, looking out her window. Fourteen stories down, the city was falling over itself, playing out the end of the evening. Out there, somewhere, the blonde with the Celtic tattoo was walking, wondering if she would ever be loved, not knowing she already was. And the Radio Shack man was neutralizing his loss, not understanding the gift he’d given to everyone who could read his words and ponder their own losses, those chunks of time when a billboard or a hangnail or magazine article about Green Day had passed them into another hour of sameness.
The art museum was crowded with tourists who’d come in for the “Blue Picasso” exhibit. Allison fought through the bodies and baby strollers to the information booth, snatching up a brochure and headset. With the earphones clamped on, she dove into the first room, playing the tape and reading along with the brochure. She made it a point to look at every single painting.
By the time she reached the last exhibit room, she was exhausted and sat on the corner of a marble bench, forcing a group of kids to move over. She lifted the headphones away and wrapped the cord. Her legs ached and she was thirsty, but she was too tired to get up and go home. When the kids left, she claimed a delicious amount of space for herself, stretching her arms out to the sides, balancing her weight through the palms of her hands and rotating her head in small circles. She jumped when a firebell began to ring, stirring up the hot, hushed air with its metal clang. The tourists skittered out of the room in an obligated but weary rush, buckling up their children and pulling on hats and gloves, pushing against one another with words of concern or skepticism about getting their money back. A guard ushered them along. “Use the stairs, everyone,” he said, pointing to the exits.
Allison waited until they were all gone before she leaned forward, taking in the painting in front of her: a somber nude shadowed with dark hues of blue and gray. She was appreciating how the flesh flowed along the canvas when someone walked in. He was a thick man with spiky brownish hair and a wide nose that supported a pair of bright red glasses. The headphone cord was clipped to the collar of his black shirt, and his shoes - black oxfords - were ridiculously shiny. They emerged from the ends of his frayed jeans like two June bugs.
His eyes met hers. She wondered if she knew him or had just seen him on some other occasion; he looked like the type of person who would hang out at Jake’s or Chalet Cafe, but she wasn’t certain. He was looking at her in the same way - as if maybe he knew her, but couldn’t place her. After a moment, they broke the gaze in a sort of mutual agreement. When the firebell rang for a second time, he left.
“Guess what?” Lilla said, her voice buoyant with drama. “JC got picked up.”
“Drunk driving. It happened after our poker tournament. I have to take him back and forth to work now, and he has to blow in a Breathalyzer every morning.”
“At least he’s not in jail.”
“Not yet.” She sniffed. “Allie, I have to ask a favor.”
Allison folded the museum brochure she’d been rereading and put it in a drawer. “What is it?” she asked, tentative.
“If JC has to go to rehab, will you come out here and stay with me? It’s just that I can’t handle everything on my own, the kids and the dog and all. It gets crazy.”
“Well, I would, but I don’t know how I would get back and forth to work. That’s an hour drive.”
The other end went quiet. Allison was about to speak again, to say it would be fine, she would come. But then, Lilla laughed.
“Jesus. I forgot. You don’t have a car, do you?”
“No. It would cost a fortune to park, even.”
Lilla laughed again. “Oh, forget it. I’ll get my friend Katie to come.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure, City Girl, I’m sure.”
As it happened, JC did get sent to rehab. And then - when he failed another Breathalyzer - to jail.
Allison had lost her high school yearbook, but she remembered Lilla’s inscription. To a girl who will go far, it read, in curly handwriting. When she’d first read it, there had been a smug feeling of satisfaction. Yes, she knew, she would go far.
After high school was over, Allison and Lilla had signed up for classes at the same college. At first, they were as close as ever. But, gradually, a tension built up between them.
“College is doing something to you,” Lilla remarked during their first Christmas break. She was engaged to JC by then and was planning to leave school for an accounting job. Allison had dyed her hair black and was reading everything by Salinger. She especially liked Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, even though she didn’t completely understand why Franny prayed so much. In fact, she still didn’t.
Lilla wasn’t interested in Salinger. The wedding ahead was her all-consuming chore, and she hunted down a dressmaker who could make her look slender and delicate in a wedding dress and a baker who would turn the cake into a fountain for pink champagne. At the wedding that summer, Allison wore the assigned peach cocktail dress and pinned-on cap, walking down the aisle to stand at the altar with a bouquet of daisies clutched between her breasts. During the ceremony, she bowed her head when the prayers were spoken with the sense that she’d missed some crucial lesson in life. Somehow, someway, she had never learned what all women are supposed to learn about men. But as she raised her head into the gleam of sun on the stained-glass windows, the thought dissolved into the blurs of color.
The minister announced Lilla and JC man and wife, and they kissed. Her friend looked up and out as she passed by, smiling so bright and so wide, it was like she’d had just been born into the world, but there was a shade of something in her eyes. Whatever this thing was, it reminded Allison of thought that had come and gone again, and she was frightened.
After college, Allison took a proofreading position at a business magazine and made her way up to senior editor. She now had five people working for her: two women and three men. Her staff was younger than her, and - increasingly - she found herself lingering around their cubicles, curious about the way they bantered about music and make-up and sports. When she did go into her office, she kept her ears tuned, intent on picking up the inevitable whispers. Control freak, they said about her. Old maid, said another. Lame.
From the seat behind her desk, Allison forgave them for their youth and arrogance; they were still far from the point in life where their failures would fill them with shame. Silently, through the walls of her office, she taught them the best lesson she knew:
Don’t leave the building when the firebell rings - just keep on doing what you’re doing. When the firebell rings, stay where you are and wait for the flames. This is how you will come to know that the fire is never there.
Lilla’s niece, Amy, was getting married. Allison brought a date, James, to the party. He was a tall thin man with curly hair and glasses. She’d met him during a long wait at the dentist’s office, where they had gotten into a conversation about a talk show that had been playing on the lobby’s television set. James was an artist who made a living with highly saturated illustrations of globes, stock market charts and skyscrapers dissolving into puzzle pieces. Some of them had been published in Newsweek. His muddy green eyes were remarkably sincere.
Lilla seemed surprised to see them. “You’re here,” she exclaimed as they walked into the back yard. “Allison, that dress is great. You want some beer?” She pointed them toward the keg on the patio.
The guests were gathered in the backyard, sitting in lawn chairs beside the oak tree, barely speaking to one another. Amy was leaning over a picnic table stacked with gifts wrapped in pastel paper or stuffed into shiny bags. Her fiancé was standing behind her, his back as straight as the tree trunk.
“These are friends from your high school?” James asked, skimming his gaze across the group; it hovered on JC, who was fresh out of jail. “They’re so quiet.”
But then Lilla opened the sliding glass doors and Otis rushed out. He circled the crowd, licking ankles and poking his nose into Amy’s crotch. She gave a little squeal.
“Come on, everyone,” Lilla said. “Start eating.”
Allison went for the spinach dip, and James joined her at the table. When the sky rumbled with thunder, they moved beneath a tree. The branches were full and lush with leaves, a verdant shield from the fat, furious raindrops that were falling. The party guests gathered up their purses and gifts, escaping to the house. Lilla swept a platter of nachos off the table and followed through the sliding glass doors. Otis trailed behind her, nudging inside just as the door was pulled shut.
Lightning shuddered through the yard, and the smell of wet grass and earth lifted up like incense.
Allison had been reading a magazine in the dentist’s office on the day she’d met James, absorbed in photos of smiling celebrities. She had tuned away from the flat red carpet and ringing telephone, away from the people in the lobby with their flaccid faces and restless limbs. Then she’d felt the weight of a stare.
“You think they know what they’re doing?” James had asked her.
The talk show topic was parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.
Allison remembered the man from the museum and thought for a moment that he has followed her here. The tick-tock of her thoughts came to a stop and she was coasting through time, through all the bad dates and missed connections. Had he been there all along? The glasses or the shoes or the hair, they were just disguises.
“I think so,” she replied. “Do you?”
The rain was slowing and the grass was glittering. The sliding glass doors opened and Lilla’s face appeared. “What are you two doing out there? Come inside or get a room.”
“Let’s go,” Allison said to James. They stepped away from the tree to cross the yard and join the party.
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