Philip F. Deaver
Long before the fire, back when things were going fairly right, Lowell Wagner found himself out in the Douglas County countryside on a car ride with Wally and Carol Brown. They were coming back from an AA meeting in West Ridge—it was during a phase when they’d all quit drinking and this short carpooling journey put them together, as friends and fellow recoverings. Ironic perhaps—perhaps somewhat inappropriate, too, in that Lowell, at that time, was Carol Brown’s shrink. It was a small town.
Lowell had counseled Carol for a number of years, predating her marriage to Wally. Though Lowell knew Wally a little (they both were professors at the college, Lowell in Psychology, Wally in History), he didn’t know him well. From a distance, he seemed bright, intense, somewhat sullen sometimes. Known for his strong opinions and forceful eloquence when he was pressing a case in a faculty meeting. After Wally and Carol married, Lowell began to notice Wally and the frequency of Wally rumors. Not that Carol said much about him—she didn’t. Just that it was a small town.
So that’s where things stood on the day of the West Ridge drive. And while Wally seemed quiet and odd enroute, he was completely out of whack driving back. He had expressed the opinion that cross-country was shorter and quicker than the highway, and, being the captain, he insisted, and Lowell, not wanting a boring male-ego argument about the best route, and having no classes or appointments that afternoon, acquiesced. So they headed home from West Ridge on the diagonal. It was early June, and they sank into the humid countryside, fields of soybeans, knee-high Illinois corn, bluest sky, brightest sun. Lowell was comfortable, riding shotgun, sitting sideways so he could see Wally and also Carol, who was sitting in the middle of the backseat. Wally, eyes dead ahead, leaned forward over the wheel and pressed a mile west, then a mile south, then another mile west, doggedly pausing to decide at every unmarked crossroad.
Carol was originally from New York City and, even for an AA meeting held in the modest West Ridge Methodist Church basement, was dressed up. In fairness, the West Ridge AA meeting was known locally to be more upscale than what you got at the Green Street Y in Champaign or Boy Scout Cabin facility in Tuscola or the Catholic Church hall in Cerro Gordo. Drying-out doctors county-wide opted for the West Ridge meeting —and so then did many attorneys and thus then the other entitled professionals including the most landed of the farmers; in fact, the West Ridge gathering had the feel of the Kaskaskia Country Club—which was where this same caste had nurtured their alcoholism before one by one they bottomed and went on the wagon. So Carol wasn’t overdressed, though she wouldn’t have cared if she had been because she did like to look good.
And she seemed to enjoy the company of two men on the leisurely drive. She chattered and waved her arms, positing gossipy theories and stretching each actual case to make the story better. Meantime, as he listened, Lowell began to notice that, despite the air conditioner pumping frigid, beads of sweat were welling on Wally’s forehead and lip. One drip streamed from his sideburn down his cheek and, after a flash from a sunbeam, slipped into the creases of his neck. Then for a moment Lowell was drawn into a Carol story, and when he checked back again, their silent driver had gone blotchy and dank. Whatever was coming over Wally was coming fast. Carol acted as though she didn’t notice, and maybe in fact she didn’t, or maybe, Lowell rationalized, this was normal enough for Wally and nothing to be concerned about, but about the time he considered that, Wally slowed the car and steered it to the slanting edge of the country road, on what would have to pass for a shoulder but was more of a ditch, and rolled to a stop. As did Carol’s story.
She leaned over the seat back. “Are you OK?” She touched Wally on the shoulder and leaned farther forward so she could see his face. “Yikes, you look awful.”
Wally looked over at Lowell. “It might be good if you took over.”
“You got it,” Lowell said to him. Quickly, he slid out to go around. They were so much on the slant that his door fell open, and he stepped out into gravel and weeds. To close the door he had to lift it until it latched. And then, as happens sometimes in this world when things are going right, Lowell made a casual but fortuitous decision. Instead of taking the easier route out of the ditch around the front of the car, he was, after wrestling with the door, sort of leaning to the rear and so went around that way instead. He was, in fact, exactly behind the car when suddenly the most astounding thing happened. It took off. The tires spewed gravel and clods of tar, sandblasting him, and the Browns’ aging blue Chevrolet peeled out and tore away down the road. Lowell stood staring, mouth open. In the first flash, he wondered if they’d conspired to leave him out there. Fast, he knew that wasn’t it, but it was hard to imagine anything else. He heard the big eight-cylinder engine wind out and then go above wound out, to a sort of high octane scream, the car swerving left and right between the ditches. Rumbling toward them from the opposite direction was a loaded gravel truck, clouds of dust behind it. The Chevy swerved, corrected, swerved again, tires raging against the sun-softened blacktop—the truck went deep into the east-bound ditch and Lowell involuntarily raised his hands to his head as the car whipped by it narrowly missing, the truck driver blasting the horn, the Browns’ motor loud against the quiet of the countryside even though the car was now a chrome dot sailing into the distance. The rumbling, angry gravel truck whammed past Lowell as he stood dumbfounded in the middle of the road.
In a moment, the Browns’ car was out of sight, but still he could hear the motor—and then he heard the motor stop. And the countryside was quiet again. Light wind and the call of the redwing blackbird. An airplane high above and far away, car tires on a distant road somewhere else. Prairie wind. There was nothing else to think: The Browns were dead. Had to be. The car had ducked a bumper, gone end over end, rolled a few times ejecting the driver and his dressed-up wife, skidded on its top into a field. Boom crash bang. Had to be. Lowell stared up the road.
Presently a car appeared. It was the Browns’ car, coming back for him. Carol was driving. She stared at him out her open window. “Sorry,” she said.
While Wally sat in the back seat and Lowell drove, Carol rode shotgun and apologized a lot. Between apologies she told Lowell every detail she could remember about the wild ride.
As Lowell slid out of the car and wrestled with the door, Wally lost consciousness. It was a bench-style seat, and as Wally slumped over into it, his right leg and foot pressed the pedal to the floor. The car was still in gear.
Luckily, Carol was already leaning over the seat. Though the acceleration threatened to throw her back, she managed to grab the wheel. Then suddenly she was half standing in the back, leaning way over and craning to see out the windshield, with one hand trying to steer, with the other attempting to rouse her husband back to duty. His thighs were pressing up against the lower arc of the steering wheel, and freeing the wheel by pushing down on his legs resulted in pressing his foot harder on the gas. It crossed her mind to turn off the ignition, but something told her that would lock the steering wheel. The swerving threw her around and that caused more swerving—she knew she would flip it—she could hear the motor roar and the tires squeal and she could see the gravel truck coming, and she yelled at Wally, “Wake up, you stupid fuck—you’ll kill us both!” and was driving with one hand and pounding on him and tugging at his shoulder with her other but the red stripe on the speedometer stretched past eighty miles an hour and Wally didn’t move. She knew they were both as good as dead. She saw the intersection coming. She bent her legs like a jockey standing in the stirrups and they shot onto the rise where the two roads crossed and actually left the ground, slamming down a little sideways on the other side and in the lurch from that she hit the gear shift, wonderful old gear shift on the column, and found neutral. Then, even though the motor was revved, the car slowed and glided and slowed some more, finally stopping just as Wally sat up in his seat.
On their way back to town, Wally rode sullen and silent in the backseat. Lowell, who did the driving this time, stole glances at him in the rearview mirror. What was up with this guy? The sun went behind afternoon clouds, and Lowell dropped himself off at the college. He had no idea what to say. He gave them a perfunctory wave good-bye, then got in his own car and watched as Carol slid back into the driver’s seat and drove away.
Lowell was married to Veronica. Had always been. Would always be. He’d lived crazy in his youth. After he was married twenty-two years ago things got better. During this recent time he had, active, ten clients, enough to make a steady flow. Apart from teaching classes and all that. His clients would sit one at a time in his waiting room, then come in and talk to him for an hour. Astounding, the things he heard in those sessions: the range of human behavior, the irony, the confusion, the primitive convolutions, the courage, beauty, loss, grief. The lies. For some, things never went right, and, for many, there was no hope.
Veronica, for some reason, was hope for Lowell. Always had been. Years before they were married they’d attended a Dylan concert in Chicago. Rolling Thunder Revue. Lowell had been to many concerts, but this one caught him in a different way. Even though they were close to the stage, he had binoculars—not little opera glasses but the real thing. Through the haze of weed, through the blast of music and the dizzying wonder of bouncing girls, Lowell stared at the famous Mr. Bob Dylan, icon. The binoculars were powerful. He could see the eyes. He could see the guy was as crazy as he was rich—and somehow also he was innocent, dangling right at the end of his boy-wonder phase, a little Howard Hughes starting to show at the gills, as he mutilated old favorites, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Maybe all poets and/or rock stars were like this, Lowell was thinking. Maybe that was their thing, pushing themselves farther and farther until they were pretty much out of earth orbit. Or maybe that old motorcycle accident had done something profound and permanent. Then, inside the round optical field of the binoculars, as Lowell watched Dylan begin the traditional folk song “The Water Is Wide”—did this happen? —suddenly Joan Baez stepped into the circle of light and joined Dylan at his microphone. Immediately recognizable, though she had grown into full adulthood—beautiful and somehow open, her hair shorter now, a grace and calmness, Nixon gone, the war over. The audience raised a big cheer. She smiled and then through the speakers her voice joined Dylan’s —hers lithe and steady, braided into his rasp and growl and whine. Something loose and desperate in him, something anchored and stately in her. Through the binoculars, Lowell watched them stare at each other as they sang, exactly as though they were dancing.
In bed the night of the Browns’ car debacle, Veronica and Lowell, on clean sheets in their small, sweet-smelling home on Pembroke Street, lay close. Their daughter, who was in college but lived at home, was in her room down the hall.
“So, how was the meeting?” Veronica said into his ear.
“I thought you went to AA.”
“It was good.”
“Good,” she said. She kissed him on the neck. They stayed quiet again for a while. “So,” she said, “what’s up, besides not you.”
Yes, he was preoccupied. Until then, he’d said nothing about the drive home from West Ridge. In the hours since, in his mind, the story had evolved into a new insight into his client, Carol Brown—her superhuman insistence on survival—some fierce thing in her that stood up to her own death and said, “Not this time, pal,” and about how a day that had seemed ordinary, even peaceful, had so suddenly gotten dangerous. There in bed, Lowell still smelled the oily metallic burn of near death.
Staring up at the ceiling, he told his wife about it. After he went through the whole thing, she was speechless.
“But anyway . . . ” he said, hand relaxed on her leg, “turned out fine.”
Up on one elbow, she stared at him. “Well.” She was tense. He could feel the heat. “Worst case, I’d have gotten a phone call this afternoon, and tomorrow your daughter and I’d be arranging the funeral.” She sighed big, thrashed her pillow to get it right. “Lowell, Lowell, Lowell.” She flung herself back to the other side of the bed and was fidgety for a while. Soon she said, “Do you remember the Trumbull Street house in New Haven? And we slept the whole summer on a fold-out couch?” She always did this. When she was bedeviled in some way about him, she would tear into the past for something stable, and she would engage him in using it to shore up their common foundation. It was her intuitive way of reestablishing their balance.
“Yes.” Yes, Lowell remembered.
She stayed on her side, her back to him.
Softly, she said, “And those Yale guys breaking into the apartment to steal Cheerios?”
“Yes,” Lowell said. He’d confronted them in his underwear, stomping down the hall with a ball bat.
“Do you remember where the mailbox was, at the condo?” The two of them had lived in many places, and in their folk history and oral tradition the places had shorthand names. “The condo” was a place they lived in for a year up in Freeport. “The apartment” was where they first lived, near the railroad tracks in Wheaton. “The white place” was an apartment they lived in briefly before he was drafted, second floor of a big white antebellum beauty, Geneva, on the Fox River.
“There was a mailbox on the front porch.”
“Right,” she said, deep in covers, staring away, her back to him. “I forgot that porch,” she said softly. Quiet again for a few minutes. “Lowell,” she said then, turning back to him.
“I have a lot of questions about the Browns,” she said. “Carol Brown—I like her, but I don’t know if I trust her.”
“Trust her how? It’s not like you work with her.”
Now Veronica was looking right at him. “You do.”
Ah, Lowell thought to himself.
“You’ve been seeing her for long enough, don’t you think? Doesn’t she need a female counselor to spill her pretty little guts to?”
Lowell saw Carol Brown once or twice a week in therapy—group and one-on-one. He’d been seeing her for a number of years, through her divorce, through her single years, and now into her time with Wally. Truthfully, not much of this journey did Carol ever discuss in therapy sessions. For her, therapy was a game, cat and mouse, hide and seek. She had mastered appearing to work at self-revelation, but it rarely happened. Sometimes but not always, Lowell would push her, but forget it—no gut spilling from Carol Brown!
“Besides,” Veronica said to him now, “you shouldn’t be going to the same AA meeting as these people, Lowell. You know that. It’s trouble. It’s a dual relationship.”
Lying there, Lowell pictured Carol talking to him at the office, upright and straight-backed in Lowell’s most straight-backed client chair —how she performed, looking straight at him, then averting her eyes, talking away from him into an empty space in the room.
It was a form of flirtation, for sure, but flirtation was a form of behavior. There was information in it. Lowell liked her, despite her cagey indirections. He looked forward to their sessions. She was a runner; she was an accomplished pianist; she was a good mother—most of her talk in therapy was about her high hopes for her wonderful kids, her kids from the previous marriage. All available signs were she was a devoted spouse in her own way. In therapy her story was a little pat but Lowell was thinking that his chance participation in this recent event could help launch a new frankness, maybe.
Veronica had nothing to worry about with Carol. He wanted to be a good counselor more than he wanted to court this small attraction. If there was a truer truth beyond that, Lowell didn’t want the thought coming into his head now.
Before the fire, he used to take the occasional glance through a peephole he installed in a painting in the waiting room of his office suite. He’d bought the painting at a student art auction, especially for the purpose. He fitted it to a hole he drilled through the wall. The peephole was similar to the ones in hotel room doors, only subtler. The tiny fish-eye lens allowed him to see the whole waiting room. His colleagues over in Child Development, in the new Education building, had conference rooms outfitted with one-way mirrors; this was Lowell’s jackleg version of that.
The office suite was in the big administration building at the college, as were most of the faculty offices. In fact, Wally Brown’s and Lowell’s offices were at opposite ends of the third floor there. Lowell’s office was a set of four rooms with a small foyer. He needed this space, because his private practice, by permission of the administration, was meshed with his teaching day and his psychology-related obligations to the school. In other words, he could use the third-floor space for his small private practice, on the condition that the college community would have first access and free consideration. The building, 120 years old, sometimes called “Old Main,” was the centerpiece of the campus. It was brick on the outside, oak on the inside, and if the floors were a little wavy and tended to creak, still it was a stately old thing, high ceilings, big heavy doors, a pretty red-and-blue domed skylight, five stories above the matrix marble floor of the main lobby.
Lowell’s office in Old Main was unusual. Long ago it had been the college president’s suite. Thus, it had a secret back exit. Behind his desk was what looked like the door to a small closet. Behind the door was a metal spiral staircase that plunged from Lowell’s office, with no other access, down three floors into the basement where there was a small, odd-looking door leading to the outside, padlocked and unused for the last fifty years. The staircase and the peephole made a professional life of stirring around in people’s fears and obsessions kind of interesting.
In the weeks after the Browns’ car incident, Lowell managed to get Wally back into exercise. A phase evolved in which on many afternoons Wally would mosey down the hall to Lowell’s office and wait for him to get free so they could run or go to the gym. Through his little peephole, Lowell liked to spot Wally and study him a bit. There he’d be, waiting. There he was, Professor Brown, History, his compulsory copy of the New York Times in his lap. If he wasn’t reading it, most likely he’d be staring out the window, closed posture away from the rest of the room. Overtly he’d bend, acting like he was real interested in someone down by the pond or passing on the sidewalk. He had a broad, gnarled way about him, a tight fist of a man, private in his soul. This could be mistaken for the standard posture of a professor in late mid-career, but it was way more than that.
In that dark season, Wally’d had another spell. He’d passed out in the bathroom at home, landing squarely on his face on the edge of their classic old claw-foot tub. Concussion, broken nose. Carol told Lowell about this—Wally didn’t, because Wally was Lowell’s running and racquetball pal, not a client. When Lowell asked him about these events, as a friend, Wally called them “episodes”—the car horror, the bathroom disaster. He was plenty annoyed that Carol had told Lowell about the bathroom thing, like the condition of his face the week after didn’t require explanation. Staring at him through the little hole, Lowell watched and wondered about Wally Brown.
Sometimes Lowell would watch James Kelleher, the local Catholic priest, older and new in town, wearing an open-collared sport shirt, prayer book in his lap, glasses down to the end of his nose, waiting for his hour with one of the associates. Weekly, Lowell would take a glance through the hole at a Vietnam head-case named Howie Packer before having him in for his hour, and once in a while Rachel McKeel would be out there, divorced, remarried, divorced again. Rachel was raising her little girl, reading, going to Weight Watchers, “doing” therapy, taking yoga, faithfully working in her little job, and hell-bentedly engaging in a part-time live-in arrangement with a chiropractor from Arcola. In the waiting room, Rachel and Wally would ignore each other, even though she lived directly across Van Allen Street from the Browns and had for years. It was such a small town.
Carol would be out there once or twice a week, though, by design, never when Wally was. Lowell would watch her, too. She’d sit right across from the little peephole, eyes down, legs crossed, one foot kicking with nervous energy. Michael O’Meara, Lowell’s new MSW associate, might walk by her, say hi, and they’d talk and Lowell would watch them. It was interesting to watch Carol animate in her certain special way, because, after all, for her this wasn’t Candid Camera. She knew about the peephole.
When they began their workouts, Lowell had coaxed Wally to schedule a physical, and that led to a prescription for Prozac and the doctor’s strong admonition for Wally to improve his diet and get serious about exercise. Lowell had hoped to play a part in getting Wally going, then to ease out. They started varying the routine. They’d lift weights sometimes, instead of running. In addition to racquetball, they’d do power yoga. Lowell told him to run alone more often. He told him to run sometimes with his own wife—Carol had been running for years. The main thing was, Lowell didn’t want Wally’s exercise routine to depend on anyone other than Wally. Sometimes it did seem like Wally had gotten more independent about it. Lowell might see him at the gym, lifting weights alone. Once he spotted him running out in the country, no one else in sight. Lowell would rejoice for a few days, but then he’d look through the hole and there Wally’d be, in his usual chair by the window, waiting.
By the fall after the summer after the late spring of the Browns’ car debacle, there wasn’t a single sign that Wally’s physical exercise efforts were working, and one day Lowell happened upon a little scene in the registrar’s office, first floor of Old Main. Dropping something off there, he saw Wally in the middle of a nasty argument with Ed Ewan, the rickety, white-haired registrar, over some lame class-load issue, way too small an issue for such a big deal. Lowell stuck an arm between them, and as he did he saw that look, like when Wally was about to pass out on bad car day. Staring into Wally’s distracted, bloodshot face, he said, “How’s it going, Bro?”
It took a few seconds for a response to rise up through the clouds. “Great,” Wally finally said. “It’s going great,” he said, and his red hand let go of Ed’s starched white shirt. He backed toward the door, looking around the office—then, head down, retreated into the hall and was gone. Make a note, Lowell thought: Call the doc, switch the meds.
“Your pal’s gone off his nut,” a ruffled Ed Ewan said. Then it was Lowell looking around the registrar’s office. The whole staff was staring at him.
Veronica and Lowell had a daughter named Monique who had always been called Misty. She was twenty and a student at that very college. For a few bad years, Lowell and his daughter had been sideways. Lowell’s fault, midlife and booze. But then things started going right, and before long he and Misty were doing better. Sometimes on a weekend afternoon, they’d run together in the neighborhood. She was fast and he wasn’t, but she slowed down for him. After things got better between them, Misty enjoyed mothering him, in a kidding sort of way. “Dad, you gotta drop some weight.” “Dad, please don’t wear black Levis anymore when my friends are around.” “Dad, do you ever watch Wayne Dyer on TV? You should, you could learn something.” Happily, she’d become a psychology major, which seemed to signal some faith in him. “Dad, don’t you think you might be slightly ADD yourself?” Admittedly, his edition of the diagnostic manual was older than hers, and he hadn’t looked at it recently, but Lowell was of the bias that ADD was a fad diagnosis created to expand the market for some drug that was used to treat it. Still, it did his heart good that his daughter was majoring in his field and testing her diagnostic mettle on him.
She was a real runner, and she wore a heart monitor. The apparatus had two parts—a heart sensor that was part of a strap around the runner’s chest, and then a watch worn on the wrist which was in communication with the heart sensor. A runner could look down at her watch and monitor her heart rate. Real runners could use this instrument to maintain their heart rate at a certain level for maximum aerobic benefit. Old guy runners, like Lowell, could monitor their heart rates while running and avoid overexertion and an unattractive death on a neighborhood street.
“Dad,” Misty began to say to him from time to time as they ran, “a man your age should be wearing a heart monitor out here.” She probably said it because of how loud he was panting as he tried to keep up.
Amazingly, one day she bought him one.
He used it only once. That day, running by himself, he was well into his fourth mile, tired and hot, and suddenly realized all he had to do was look down at his wrist and he could see what his heart rate was. So he glanced down and, through sweat running into his eyes, he saw a pulse rate of 197. That didn’t seem too good. So he put away the heart sensor strap and used only the watch function, for timing his runs.
Then one day that following spring he and his daughter were jogging on the streets near the house. He knew she was slowing down for him, but still he felt that he was doing well, strides long, breathing good, the rhythm right. When suddenly his running watch started beeping. It had never beeped before. He didn’t know how to stop it. He put his hand over it to suppress the sound, hoping Misty didn’t hear it. After a while it would stop, then later while they were in the middle of some conversation it would beep again.
“Watch your language, Daddy,” Misty said with a daughterly laugh. “It’s just your heart monitor,” she said.
They ran on for a while. The beeping would relent. Half a mile later, for no reason known to science, it would beep again.
“Just shut it off, Pops.”
“I’m not wearing the monitor.”
“What?” she said. They kept trotting along, beep beep beep. “Real nice. I bought it for you and you don’t wear it. Geez. A hundred bucks.”
“Well, I’m not wearing the damn thing, and it’s beeping anyway.”
Misty traded places with him, let him run at the curb while she ran on the side toward traffic. No more beeping. Down the street they went for a while, smooth as silk.
Finally she spoke again. “It was my heart monitor, setting off your watch, in case you didn’t notice.”
“You mean your heart beat . . . ”
“Hard to explain.”
“You mean my watch . . . ”
“But shouldn’t there be some kind of privacy code or something, so our monitors don’t get crossed up?”
“Shshshshshshsh. Settle down.” She was joking with him.
“Couldn’t you find out all my secrets? Would my heartbeat show up on your cell phone?”
“Yeah, right. Paranoid!” It didn’t bother her at all to joke around and run too fast at the same time. Down the street they went, steady as can be.
He loved her a lot. “This is pretty good,” he said. “I sort of like wearing a watch that’s in touch with your heart.”
“Awww,” she said. By then they were in mile five, and it was all he could do to keep up with her. It didn’t seem one bit right. He’d watched her being born. And on they ran for a while. As they came into the last of it, they were both quiet and concentrating—lift the legs, steady the pace. And right about that time Veronica suddenly pulled up next to them in the Toyota.
She spoke quietly but fast. “Hop in, you guys—it’s bad news. Old Main’s on fire.”
Lowell was getting a second doctorate at the time. He had a Ph.D. in Clinical, but now he wanted an Anthropology doctorate, too, and he’d been a number of years getting close. His desktop computer, with dissertation on the hard drive, backup disks on the bookshelf, laptop with backup copy on its hard drive, backup tape system with desktop and laptop hard drives backed up, and zip drive backup system to make sure, were all in his office. As Veronica drove them toward the college he saw smoke from blocks away, rolling in a spark-filled black ball up into the sky and filling every downwind nook and cranny of the neighborhood. Old Main was five stories tall including basement and attic, and nearly a block long. As they got closer to the fire, Lowell was doing inventory on the things that would be gone. Twelve years of client files, his father’s Buck hunting knife, pictures, the dissertation lock-stock-barrel. A lifetime of books. Parallel losses for his associates. The great place itself, the comfortable familiarity of its spaces, the windows looking out over the lawn and the fountain.
“Jesus,” Misty mumbled as they rounded the last corner. The south end of the building was engulfed top to bottom. Arcola, Tuscola, West Ridge, and the local chemical plant’s fire trucks were either already there or just arriving. Fire hoses were everywhere, across the streets and across the grass, but police hadn’t yet stopped traffic.
“They’ll never put this one out,” Misty said. From the back seat, she leaned forward and put her hand on Lowell’s shoulder. “Dad, the whole thing’s gonna burn.” And his heart monitor watch started beeping.
From all directions, the fire was being blasted by water. A paper brigade had been set up at the main door. Students, faculty, staff, passed records and files from the various administrative offices hand-to-hand a safe distance out onto the building’s big expanse of lawn. On the upper floors, people dropped things from their office windows. They were saving all they could. Police were blowing whistles and waving their arms. Everyone ran, all directions. Lowell could hear the fire crackling, big pieces of Old Main falling.
Veronica pulled up on the drive at the north end of the building, amid a scattering of fire trucks. Lowell looked up to his third-floor office. It seemed fine, at the far end of the building from the fire. Actually, if one thought about it, there was a little time left. He got out of the car. Veronica said something to him but he got the door closed just in time.
He walked toward the building, glancing at the small defunct door that was at the foot of his private spiral staircase. A fireman stood guard at the north entrance. To get to him, Lowell had to walk under yellow tape, just being strung by the police department, and climb a set of steps to a concrete porch where the north door was. The fireman, a member of the Brotherhood of Tuscola Volunteer Fire Fighters, held a large fireman’s ax on his shoulder.
“Hey,” Lowell said to him, “this is good duty. It’s pretty hot on the other end.”
“You got that right,” the fireman said. His dirty yellow fireman’s jacket had the name “Burroughs” on it. “Listen, you gotta get back behind the tape, sir.” He pointed.
“You gotta get back behind the yellow tape down there. See it?” He pointed at the perimeter the police had set up. “We’re clearing the building of people.”
“No, no, I’ve gotta go in the building.” Lowell smiled at him.
“You’ve gotta what?”
“There’s not a lot of time. I’ve got to get some stuff. I’ll hurry.”
Burroughs was young, the age of a lot of the older college students. “Sir, I’m telling you, get away from the building.” The fireman’s gloved hand was pointing the way.
Right then, fast, Lowell hit him—hard, just below the ear, quick right jab, and then shoved him over the porch’s pipe railing, ax and all. It was about a six-foot drop squarely onto his helmet, the fall broken by shrubs. Lowell’s hand hurt because the punch caught a little bit of the helmet, but he was in the building.
In his running clothes, he bounded up the first flight. The smoke in the air was not just thick, it was poison—the one short breath he took told him he better not take another. On the second floor, he looked down the long hall toward the fire, a rolling ball of red-orange rage in a havoc of black smoke. There seemed to be a lot of noise and no noise, all at once. At the top of the next flight, he was across the hall from his office door. No keys, of course, and needing air, he didn’t take time to try the door. He went right into it with his shoulder. Old Main’s doors were old, tall, and heavy, and this one held with the first hit. He stepped back and went at it again, this time like there was no tomorrow. He popped it. Inside, he quickly pushed it shut.
The air there was acrid, but he could breathe OK. He stepped up to his file cabinet. In the past he’d never have attempted to move this monster, but in the past, of course, he’d never considered punching a fireman. He grabbed it and would not accept from it that it was heavy and wouldn’t move, scooted it to the window. He tipped it so that the upper part rested on the window sill, then lifted the goddamned thing from the bottom, a five-drawer steel cabinet chock full, and blew it right through the closed window. It fell three stories, landed in the bushes with a crunch. Through the destroyed window, he saw his daughter going crazy out by the yellow tape. He waved. “Hi, Baby,” he said to himself. He saw Veronica, too, wearing a bright yellow blouse. She was staring toward him, her arms folded across her, motionless in a group of people under the line of maples that bordered the north drive. He jerked the cords out and tossed the CPU for his computer, making sure it didn’t land on the cabinet. He heaved his father’s sheathed hunting knife in the direction of his daughter, who scampered under the yellow tape to fetch it. He grabbed his laptop, the hardcopy of the anthropology document, zip drive, his blue and orange Fighting Illini coffee cup, from his desk drawer his wedding ring that he’d had cut off after he gained weight, his grandfather’s magnifying glass, a great picture of Veronica from the desk, a picture of his parents from off the wall above his bookcase. He put it all in a copy-paper box. Smoke was coming up through the floor. He looked around for what else. The books. The painting with the peephole. The great desk chair he’d bought himself when he turned fifty. He grabbed a loose pile of CDs that was part of the clutter on a bookshelf. He could hear people yelling outside. Smoke was whipping past the windows. What else could he carry? What wasn’t he remembering? The fire was coming. Sirens. The place was a blur. Good-bye. Good-bye to all of it.
He decided he didn’t want to come face-to-face with the fireman when he exited the building. Burroughs would probably still be mad. Box under his arm, he took a breath and with a free hand opened the door to the great old secret spiral staircase—at last, a use for it. Looking in, the first thing he noticed was that the air in the stairwell was still good. The second thing he noticed was Wally Brown, cowering in the shadows a few steps down in the dark.
“Hey, Bro,” Wally muttered, looking up at him.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Lowell said.
The ordinariness of the question made Wally laugh. “Not too bad,” he said. Tears streamed down his sooty face.
Lowell and Wally spent the night of the fire in the little Douglas County jail, Lowell because he hit the fireman and Wally because he burst out of the building with the assailant himself, blasted through the locked but decrepit side door at the bottom of the spiral stairs with his ample lowered shoulder. Lowell followed him out carrying the box of stuff from his office. Deputies “subdued” them, so the newspaper read a few days later, and hauled them off. Around seven that evening, Misty came by the jail with Lowell’s checkbook, some jeans (blue), and a sweatshirt. Lowell was still wearing his running shorts. He was escorted out by a female deputy.
“My goodness,” his daughter said, using her mock-motherly tone, looking at his handcuffs. “Are those real?”
They both laughed for a minute, until the nice deputy jerked his chain. “You got your clothes. Let’s go.”
Before he went back, he slipped the closed loop of his arms over his daughter’s head and down around her shoulders and hugged her. “How’s your mom?” he said.
“She’s a little stressed out,” Misty said to him as he was being towed back to the lock-up. “She wasn’t about to come over here with me, I’ll tell you that.” She gave him a “chin up” smile just before the big door bammed closed.
The following morning, a Sunday, the judge phoned the jail from home before church, talked to the sheriff, who passed the message along. The judge said he could understand what Lowell did and why. Still, he said, there was the matter of a public servant who was injured trying to do his job. He assessed Lowell a fine of four hundred dollars, to be paid directly to the Brotherhood of Tuscola Volunteer Firefighters’ Fund. The judge had Fireman Burroughs go over to the jail, so Lowell could apologize. It was a small town, and people did what the judge said. Lowell came out of the lock-up with his wallet, belt, and running clothes in a paper sack and gave the check directly to Burroughs, who was standing there, exhausted, gauze taped over his eyebrow, now looking smaller in his ironed Levis, farmer’s tan, wet hair slicked back, his young wife next to him glaring at the lunatic who’d hit her husband.
Lowell looked them both in the eye. “Sorry,” he said.
Nobody was sure why Wally was arrested. He’d been with Lowell in the building, so they took him in, figuring they’d sort it out later. Fraternities, the whole football team, a lot of the faculty who had offices there, had run into the burning building, helped save critical records, grabbed the heirlooms and books they couldn’t live without. None of them was hauled to jail but Lowell and Wally. That next morning the judge let Wally go, no questions asked.
That morning, the community was shell-shocked, of course. It was the biggest fire ever, bigger than when the Douglas Hotel burned and left the downtown looking like it was missing its front teeth. A single-file line of cars streamed down Main Street, everybody staring at the ruin, still burning in its own crater.
That night Lowell and Veronica went to bed early. He didn’t sleep much in jail the night before, of course, and zero sleep was never good. Though he was stressed and distracted, music coming from Misty’s room was comforting. He could feel the safety of his home and people. Within their locked bedroom, he and Veronica made love. Afterwards, after a civilized interval in the dark, Veronica yawned her affected yawn, how she would begin a discussion she really needed with an attempt at casualness and nonchalance. “Did you think about us when you ran in there?” She was standing at the bedside, a shadow sliding back into her nightgown.
“I guess I didn’t, no.” He knew he didn’t. There’d been no reflection. “I was sure I could get in and out fine if I didn’t stand there and talk about it.” In the dark, the room threatened to capsize like those nights he came to bed drunk, but this time that wasn’t it. “Do we have to talk now?” he heard himself say.
“Did you think about your daughter?”
There’d been a picture of Misty as a baby in his desk drawer. Had he grabbed it? “I saw you both, out the window. You were on my side. Misty was jumping up and down.”
“She was cheering. Stop it. And you—you were with me all the way.”
“Horror, my love. Bushels of it. I watched them arrest you! Oh my God!”
They were quiet for a while. She went to the bathroom. He got some water. Something stronger would have been nice. He forgave himself the lapse. You aren’t human if you don’t think that after a fire. Then they were back in bed. She said, “Did you listen to the messages? People called all day. Buddy Blue phoned at the crack of dawn. He was laughing. He goes, ‘Good luck saving a computer by dropping it three floors into the dirt’.”
Lowell laughed. “Such a cynic.” Buddy’s real name was Wilbur Gray, Sociology Department, a marathoner. He was too quick to run with, but he and Lowell played a lot of racquetball.
“Vasco Whirly phoned saying he was ‘proud to know you’—those were the words.” Vasco was an ex-teacher at the college who now worked in safety at the Murdock Mine. He and Lowell were still friends.
“Vasco said that he and a couple of your other jock pals got your filing cabinet and stowed it where the college is storing things for the time being, and not to worry.”
“Some of these people actually like me.”
“Mike O’Meara called, too. He apparently helped Vasco.” O’Meara was the new MSW in Lowell’s department. “He said he got in the office before you, rescued a few of your things. So that’s good. He said he left the office door unlocked.”
“Hmm. That explains some things,” Lowell said. Such as how Wally got in.
“We all love you, crazy man. Think how we’d have felt if today we were matching burnt bone to dental records.”
“OK.” Lowell was upset. He was thinking about Wally Brown in the old stairwell, Carol in the driver’s seat out in the countryside on bad car day. Carol’s pretty legs in her nice dress, foot-tapping, eyes averted, observed through the hole in the waiting room wall. He was thinking about all that was confused and all that was lost.
“And by the way,” Veronica whispered to him. “Misty’s worried about you. Now that you’re off the sauce, she wants you to live.”
Lowell stayed quiet.
“So wear the heart monitor, will you?”
She laughed and waited for more of a response, but none came. “You’re off somewhere, aren’t you?” Lowell’s distraction made Veronica’s world uncertain. She stirred and started talking. “Do you remember that time in Yugoslavia we got so hungry in the middle of the night that we stopped and heated a can of stew in the ditch?”
“We were insane.”
“Absolutely,” he said.
She sighed and snuggled for a few minutes. “Lowell. Do you remember in Charlottesville in the townhouse when I caught you panning the high rise across the street with the binoculars?”
They were the Rolling Thunder binoculars. Damn. Gone in the fire. A small camera, too, with half a roll of film still in it. Lowell sighed.
“Did you want to see a naked woman?”
Charlottesville. OK. What was he doing that night, he now began to wonder. “A naked woman would have been nice, I guess. I think what I was doing, I was looking at slices of lives. Like Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Or something. I don’t know.”
“You felt guilty about it. You tried to hide the binoculars when I walked in.”
Yes, he supposed he did. “Honey, I was curious about how people acted. I was like a dog that eats grass. I had an experiential vitamin deficiency.”
“Now you do all this leering for a living.”
Quiet a while in the dark. “That’s clever, but inexact.”
“I guess if there’s anything good to come out of this, it’s that your sneaky little peek-a-boo painting at the office is torched.”
Sometimes Lowell swore to himself that she had mental telepathy. Quiet again, for quite some time. He stared upwards, sighed a lot.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked him. “Lowell, you’ve got to talk this through, honey.”
“I’m thinking about Wally.” Actually, he was thinking about Carol. “I’m thinking about AA. Vasco and Mike lugging my filing cabinet.”
“Wally looked real peculiar when the two of you scrambled out of there.” Now Veronica sighed. “You have this whole brotherhood of wounded weirdos.”
Quiet a while. Prozac. Lowell hadn’t called Wally’s doctor.
“So what else are you thinking about?”
He stood up abruptly, went for some more water. A look at his very thirsty, rumpled, transparently whacked-out self in the bathroom mirror. Came back into the bedroom, quietly closing the door. “You know,” he said, “later on that night Wally was fine—quite lucid, and funny.”
“You mean, in the slammer?”
“Well, yes, we were in jail.” They laughed. He climbed back in bed, sitting up. “He was on the upper bunk in our cell. He was quoting Chuang Tzu, as translated by Merton, about finding happiness by not pursuing it. And some Stoic from one hundred years A.D. about how we must wish for things to happen as they do happen, instead of how we want them to.”
“Pretty good,” she said. “He was confessing, right?”
“Wally was one overeducated prisoner, I’ll tell you that.”
“Where was Carol? Are the kids with her?”
“I don’t have a clue about Carol,” Lowell said much too quickly, though he truly didn’t. Veronica had him all self-conscious about Carol now. The room turned again. In the old days, Lowell kept a bottle behind the furnace in the basement. His mind went there.
“Do you remember Ben, in Muncie, at the Sycamore house? I miss him.” Their common past. Ballast. Ben, their malamute, stolen in Charlottesville. Reminded Lowell: Picture of him and Ben next to their old blue VW, on the office bookshelf. Had he saved it? “Honey, do you know where that box is, that I carried out yesterday?”
“It’s in the Toyota, all safe,” she said. She stretched and then was quiet a while. Maybe a yawn. “Mike said he grabbed a camera you had in the office, a few other things. He said give him a call.”
“Hmm. There’s hope for a few things then,” Lowell mumbled. “Hope is good.” Things had been going right, there for a while—so it seemed, looking back. But he was back in the struggle now, for sure.
“Also, I think the jury is in on the Browns. Since they’ve actively figured in your two most recent near-death experiences that I know of.” She kissed him. “Don’t you think? Carol needs a new shrink, somebody who’ll kick her around a little.” He could feel Veronica looking at him, her eyelashes intermittently brushing his skin as she blinked. Finally, she said in a heated whisper: “So, Lowell—you know Wally burned down the fucking building, right?”
OK. He took a deep breath. How bad would it get? Veronica, in their dark bedroom, her beauty and voice that he loved, that mysterious French look, her smile that he knew was there even in the absence of light —her hands that he remembered from when she was seventeen, twenty-one, thirty, etc., her arm across him, her legs braided into his—she pulled him down into the covers. “There’s tons of hope, babe,” she whispered to him. She got him face to face with her. He could hear the thump of rock’n’roll coming down the hall from Misty’s room, and he could hear his wife breathe, deep and steady. The next minutes passed slowly. “I love the Stoics, don’t you?” she whispered, lips close to his ear. He looked into the dark where he knew her eyes were. He took deep breaths. They were lying there together one-day-at-a-timing it, and it was like they were dancing.
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