BN.com Gift Guide

House Fires

Paperback (1)
$17.06
BN.com price
(Save 14%)$20.00 List Price
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (7) from $1.99   
  • New (3) from $5.95   
  • Used (4) from $1.99   
Sending request ...

Editorial Reviews

Mary Morris
[Nancy Reisman] is a kind of Ann Beattie for the late nineties, a storyteller who knows just where our hurts and our laugh come from.
Harper's Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The 11 stories in Reisman's low-key debut collection, winner of the 1999 Iowa Short Fiction Award, are set everywhere from 1948 Buffalo to 1981 San Francisco and feature emotionally needy characters dealing with loss, unrequited desire and self-discovery, most often against the backdrop of a carefully detailed domesticity. Two sections contain tales linked by their protagonists ("Buffalo Series," "Jessie Stories"), and another holds more loosely grouped narratives ("Northeast Corridor"); these stories are constructed out of short scenes layered to suggest a whole. In the stand-alone title story, a chronicle of the aftereffects of a family death, tormented Amy credits the fire that claimed her adult sister with "dismantling" her family: "one by one we shorted out." By examining her parents' and her own reactions to the tragedy, she puzzles out the essence of their common existence. "Dreaming of the Snail Life," in the "Northeast Corridor" section, presents a rather static sketch of a woman at loose ends in urban Providence. Lovesick, jealous, vicious and alone, the best she can do is to imagine "someplace else." By contrast, the dazzling "Confessions," in "Buffalo Series," showcases Reisman's gift for dialogue in an intimate, affecting portrait of a man newly returned from WWII with his new European wife, who must explain his marriage to the man he still loves. In the intergenerational "The Good Life," one of the "Jessie Stories," Reisman celebrates the comforting power of small gestures as Jessie's mother comes to terms with her 24-year-old daughter's lesbianism and her own mother's senility. Though Reisman sometimes fails to infuse her familiar themes with a truly original twist, the tender vulnerability she exposes in her characters gives this earnest collection heart. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rather lugubrious debut collection by the 1999 Iowa Short Fiction Award–winner. Reisman seems to have taken Tolstoy's dictum about unhappy families to heart: all 11 stories here depict the contours and rhythms of life within homes that appear to have nothing holding them together save common misery. The title piece, for example, portrays the steady unraveling of a Boston family whose daughter dies in a house fire while away at college, and the surviving daughter's inability to cope with her parents in her sister's absence. "Rubies" introduces us to the unhappy marriage of a discontented Cambridge graduate student and a Boston lawyer terrified of his elderly mother's approaching demise, as observed by a naive younger man who becomes obsessed with the wife. Another bad marriage—this between a semi-frigid woman and her uncomprehending husband—appears in "Dreaming of the Snail Life," while the lingering resentments that follow in the wake of a divorce poison the holiday relations between children and parents in "Sharks." Best of all, however, are the four linked stories of the "Buffalo Series" that depict, with a marvelous empathy, the complex affections of a group of second-generation Jews in Buffalo during the late 1940s and beyond: the doomed love of Edie Cole for the gay Arthur Blum, Arthur's own tormented love for Edie's brother Manny, and the refugee Anna's marriage of convenience to Arthur that takes on a sudden sexual life of its own. Splendidly nuanced and nicely shaped, these four pieces succeed in re-creating a vanished world of innocence and despair. A mixed bag indiscriminately stuffed full of treasures amid much dross: Reisman's debut has all thehesitancy of the beginner unsteady on her feet and unsure of her ambitions. But she can rise to the occasion when she aims high enough.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780877456926
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Series: Iowa Short Fiction Award Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 228
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


House Fires


* * *


                When Randi died, my family went haywire: one by one we shorted out. My father, a dignified cardiologist, took to drinking and belligerence. My mother's mannered calm gave way to hysteria. I became pale and inept and forgot how to hold conversations.

    My sister was killed at night by fire; afterward, the indigo black sky seemed intolerable. Ordinary flames left us stricken and obsessed. Her last minutes seemed a vast unlit space I could neither penetrate nor ignore. In my attempts to comprehend them, I went as far as lowering my fingers over lit matches and holding my breath. I ended up writing Randi secret notes, which I left crumpled in the kitchen trash. Wake up and jump out a window. Do this scene over again, some way I can see it: a rescue, a sprained ankle, momentary coughing, an embrace on the street, in the light of fire engines. Here, steady yourself. Let me wrap your ankle. I will bring you blankets. Within weeks I took to dressing in Randi's old clothes, castoff sweaters, worn jeans, dresses from her past: some of them held traces of her crushed-lilac scent. I'd wear them until my mother made me take them off, or until there was nothing of Randi left in them.

    The house Randi lived in was a two-family in New Haven I saw only once, after the fire; the surviving structure was roofless, open along the western side, char and ash and air where Randi's room had been. Left over were objects fromstorage: books she didn't use, an olive raincoat, camping equipment, all smoke damaged. The fire was caused by faulty wiring and fanned by high winds, the sort of thing you'd never anticipate. Imagine, for example, your life is rising, the proof is everywhere, at your Ivy League law review, in your lovemaking, in the mirror. Certainty crests, crests again. You work impossibly hard and sleep heavily, sleep through the first scent of smoke. When do you realize you are trapped in sheets of flame?


* * *


    Her voice burned. Her intellect burned. I don't know what to say about her soul. Randi's body reminded me of certain sea pebbles: white, smooth, perfectly separate. That night she was sleeping, a woman wrapped in quilts, a woman turned inward, a self on a bed. No one reported hearing her—no cries, no calls. Did she, at the end, remain asleep? Did she wake to the knowledge of fire and nothing else, not even herself?


* * *


    That winter I became unsure of my skin: it seemed too thin and insubstantial to contain me. At night I felt a sudden panic and imagined spilling out into the dark air, slipping beneath the sound of stray sirens, dissipating. Near my parents' house a local diner burned, and I stayed at the window biting my nails and watching the sky grow chalky. I couldn't ignore the ways fire annihilates: the objects that steady us—landmarks, banisters, familiar walls—disappear or char down to remnants. An address no longer counts; a phone number drops away. Proof of the past vanishes and the infrastructure of our days collapses into chaos. It is pure loss, and yet, coming upon someone else's fire, we pull over to the side of the road, stand in the street, stare from the top of the hill at the gorgeous and terrible flames. In some living room the family photos are seared off the wall; outside the house we stand back, stand back but can't leave.

    On the worst nights I crept downstairs to my parents' dark family room and turned on late movies: Stella Dallas, Splendor in the Grass, Shampoo. I would watch anything. At first I fell into film because of the story lines, but it also seemed a world impervious to fire. Even celluloid, which can so easily shrivel from heat—a sudden melting on screen, burns blooming over a city street or hotel lobby or a woman's bewildered face—seemed salvageable. The image curls away into brown arcs and blank space; the film breaks; the projectionist snaps off the machine. But wait, and the film begins again, skipping a few lines of dialogue, losing a gesture. The damaged reel will be replaced by a new, flawless print. Finally, somewhere, there was recourse.


* * *


    Eventually, I studied film; now on my insomniac nights I read theory. I return to Bazin, who wrote in the aftermath of World War II and, nevertheless, insisted on unity. He thought that film's promise and purpose was to elucidate the real, to reveal the patterns already before us, and he believed that unity of space and time were paramount. So he relied on long shots: if a scene includes a man and a woman in a room, the camera should give us a clear view of both the characters and the space, all within a frame. No jump cuts, no breaks in time. When the scene is whole, we witness the simultaneous body language, the woman stirring her coffee as the man stares into his lap, the man leaning forward as the woman says his name, the thickness of the oak table dividing them, the strange juxtaposition of their tensed bodies and troubled faces against extravagant floral wallpaper. How small they appear stumbling down a hill in the snow; how terribly close in the hospital elevator they must take together. Each shot reveals the shifts in power. I like this idea; I am drawn to Bazin's faith. But is wholeness itself illusory? So often I see things in pieces.

    Picture, for example, my mother the months after Randi died, a forty-eight-year-old woman weeping into her coffee, weeping into the houseplants, slamming doors when contradicted, then weeping behind one or another slammed door. Every evening after six, she'd prepare an impressive dinner none of us could eat. You could film her for minutes at a distance, a woman alone in an immaculate kitchen, snapping green beans and fishing Kleenex from her pocket, then calling, "Dinner everyone," as if there were ten of us. Or you could abandon Bazin's principle and film her face in close-up, film the lined hands, the manicured nails, elaborate rings and traces of arthritis, fingers breaking and breaking the beans, and then cut to a shot of my father pretending to work but actually drawing squares on a notepad. Watch my father refill his Glenlivet, see in close-up the heavy lines beneath the eyes, a single twitch at the corner of his mouth, and hear my mother's voice, "Dinner everyone." Or you could view the plush empty rooms of the house, one after another, then cut to my father's face, his sip of scotch. Cut to me, disheveled, on the floor of the living room, thumbing the classifieds without looking at them, headphones over my ears. Hear the sound of those snapping beans. Cut to my mother's face, then to the wintry lawn, "Dinner everyone."


* * *


    I hear my father's voice swim out of the dark. Beyond the window blue snow accumulates over the college lawns. It is Vermont. It is December. His voice seems to emanate from the band of falling snow rather than the phone line; we are nearly mutes. He almost chokes on my name but then repeats it, breathlessly, "Amy," over the miles of cable between Boston and Bennington, across the 5 A.M. blue dark. He says that Randi was in a fire. What do you mean? I say.

    She was in it. She didn't get out.

    My mouth tastes of metal and the night flattens into slabs of light and dark, the snow into two-dimensional flecks. I brush my hair. I dial the busline, write a schedule on a drugstore receipt, dress myself in a sweater and leggings, find matching shoes. In dawn light I board a bus that travels past fields of snow and stripped silver trees, stopping in tiny towns along the Connecticut River valley. Two seats away from me, a woman hums songs from West Side Story, and once the driver stops to tell a man in the back to put out his cigarette. The air becomes increasingly white as we drive and the daylight thickens. All the way down the highway snow falls, small frenzied flakes that seem never to end.


* * *


    In New Haven we held hands. My parents seemed crushed and ancient, and our gaits dropped off to a shuffle. On the grounds of Yale the three of us walked in a row, hand-in-hand: sometimes I was on the outside to the left and sometimes I was in the middle. At a restaurant table my father touched my hand, then clasped my mother's, then knotted his own together while a waiter brought us coffee and plates of eggs we ignored. At the funeral in Newton, my parents held hands at the graveside, and when I stepped back, away from the rest of the mourners, they appeared to be at the very edge of the grave, heads bowed; a gust of wind could have knocked them in. They were gripping each other's hands and didn't sway or lean or turn, becoming in that moment a still shot of snow-flecked hair, shoulders in overcoats, almost trembling, a small bridge of hands. Aunt Natalie shepherded me from the funeral parlor to the graveside to my parents' house and into a chair; she held my hand, and later other relatives and friends would take one hand or the other and hold it, sometimes purposefully, sometimes almost absently, as they sat with plates in their laps and spooned up mild foods, offering me pieces of bagel or sliced cucumbers. The Orthodox women on my father's side of the family wore dark velvet hats with delicate brims; their warm, soap-scented hands stroked my stubby, nail-bitten fingers. It was as if in all this handholding we would find the missing hands or reconstruct them somehow.

    My thirteen-year-old cousin, Ellen, held my hand to tug me away from the living room, to tell me that Randi had explained sex to her. "She was the best," Ellen said. "She knew everything. I wish she weren't dead." All at once, Ellen burst into tears and clung onto me, crying into my navy dress. We swayed in the kitchen for several minutes, Ellen's soft animal sounds rising, my silence wrapping and wrapping them. I kissed Ellen on the forehead and watched the weather arrive in the backyard. Then Aunt Natalie found us and helped me upstairs to nap.

    After a week of visits from relatives and friends, gifts of coffee-cakes and casseroles and pots of soup, everyone disappeared. There were the three of us. For a few weeks I kept an eye on my mother, who sometimes needed help getting dressed. The king-sized bed dwarfed her; she would lie on the right side, the quilt gathered around her, propping her head just enough to see me pull blouses and pants out of her closet and wave them in the air before her. She would shake her head at one outfit, shake her head at another, eventually shrug at something. I'd turn on the shower for her and get the temperature right. I'd wait until she was done and hand her a towel. By then she was ready to be on her own. "Okay, doll," she'd say, and then I would falter. I did have projects to work on: I had taken incompletes in all my fall classes but could hardly think about the sociology of militarism or the French subjunctive. In truth, I could hardly think. I watched my late movies, got up in time for Good Morning America, and napped during the day. To occupy myself, I often folded laundry.


* * *


    My father went back to work almost immediately. I thought it was because in his office there were people he could save. Or because he didn't know what else to do. He claimed that, since he'd cosigned all of Randi's law school loans, he couldn't afford a longer leave. No one believed him. One of my father's partners, Barry Levitz, suggested that my parents leave the country. "Take a real vacation," Barry said. "Go to the Azores. Go to France." This was something my mother wanted and my father resisted. A week before my spring semester was to begin in Vermont, she pulled me aside and asked me to go with them to Paris. It seemed an unsavory idea. And shouldn't I try school? "I can't go now," I said. "I don't have a passport."

    "We can't go without you," my mother said. "We couldn't leave you here alone."

    "You should go," I said. "Eat pastry. Go to the Louvre. I'll be okay."

    My mother pursed her lips and gave me a once-over: I'd been wearing a bathrobe for two days.

    "I'll call you in Paris," I said. "Anyway, I have to go back to school."

    "We'll talk later," she said.

    But no one went anywhere.


* * *


    If I were to film that first month, I would want to focus on small gestures, small sounds, a sort of bewildered scratching against the largeness of the space around us, the largeness of each day. But for how long would that work on the screen? There ought to be narrative development, but of what sort, and how should it be filmed?

    The following months in Newton, we all had a propensity for breaking things. Bright drinks fell to the floor. Lamps sat too close to the edges of tables. The patio door slammed too hard, breaking a spring. "Nuts," my mother would say. Picture, then, a shot of a hand knocking backwards into a juice glass, the glass shattering, bright orange spilling over the white linoleum floor.

    "Shut up," my father says. "Just shut up." This at dinner, while my mother and I grasp at conversation about the unexpected pigeons at the birdfeeder or the recipe for stuffed cabbage or what is at the Newton Cinema. A faint pinkness creeps up through his cheeks and forehead, over his balding scalp. He is not drunk. He is a man I've never met before. My mother bites the inside of her cheek: she holds firmly to the belief that dinner conversation is both a right and an obligation. Silence at the table is uncivilized. She stares at the roast potatoes and julienned carrots on her plate and says, as if he were a child, "Abe, you don't have to eat with us tonight."

    One night, he grunts and stays. One night, he takes his plate off to the study. My mother is utterly white and gray, her skin more drawn, the pale blue of her eyes washed out, her jawline rigid. Her conversation with me becomes even more tenuous, bits of chaff thrown into the air. I bought apples today. The gas man will be here Thursday morning. Buddy Stern is getting married again. The scene repeats itself until my mother just shakes her head, tears up, and drops whatever line of conversation she's started. I stay catatonic through dessert.


* * *


    Would it be more cinematic to hear the voice, the low shout, "shut up," and cut to me alone, an hour later, striking a match, my index finger racing through the flame? What does it mean to pair my father's voice with that action? To follow it with shots of my mother's sudden entrance into my room, her hard slap across my face, the gash made with the edge of her ring, my right cheek slowly welling blood?

    We are both stunned, my mother and I. Her mouth shapes a perfect, cerise-lipsticked O. My face stings as she pulls me into the bathroom and jams my burned fingertip under the cold water. Red bruises form on my wrist where she grips it. "Don't you ever," she says. In the mirror I see her glance at the cut on my cheek. Neither one of us touches it.

    Later the shock wears off. One day I try on Randi's blue satin prom dress, pour myself some Glenlivet, and lounge in Randi's room, reading my mother's back issues of National Geographic and sifting through photographs of Randi's old boyfriends and high school triumphs: Randi at a diving meet arrowing into a pool; Randi and Alex Goldman waving from a ski lift; Randi in a black strapless dress, drinking a Bud. I find Randi at eighteen in an emerald green sweatshirt, thick amber hair cut to shoulder length, head tipped onto Bob D'Amato's shoulder. She is the cat with the canary, and sexy, brainy Bob D'Amato wraps both arms around her, his teeth astonishingly white. My mother walks into the room, colors at the sight of me, and slaps me on both cheeks. Neither one of us is surprised. I say nothing. I take off the dress in front of her, rehang it in Randi's closet, and slip on my jeans and sweatshirt.

    A week later, when I mistakenly set the table for four, my mother slaps me again and I mechanically clear the fourth place. My father lifts his head from the stack of mail he is sorting. "Marian." He shakes his head ever so slightly. Then they are both stock still, staring at each other. They don't notice my exit from the room.

    How would an audience's view change if I cut back and forth between the slaps and the wailing I hear late at night from my parents' room, or between the slaps and the latest instances of my mother's social decline—her skittishness in supermarkets and clothing stores, her new awkwardness with friends? Would it be more accurate? Or too overt, too manipulative? Montage can be tricky and coercive, which is why advertisers and other propagandists embrace it. But the wailing is important.

    Most mornings, even then, my mother kissed me and smoothed my hair.

    My father, on the other hand, could not easily greet me. He rose in the morning for work, he left the house, he called my mother once in the afternoon, he returned at six and secluded himself. Perhaps that is when he wept. He shouted when his brooding was interrupted. Get out of here. I crumbled; Randi was the one who could shout back. And yelling was not part of our relationship: when I was small, one stern look would keep me in line. So I began to move stealthily when he was home, slipping past him into empty rooms, avoiding him in the hallway, though this could backfire. What's the matter with you, are you a mouse?

    Appease, I thought, appease. I left ridiculous notes in his briefcase—Have a good day!—along with packages of Fig Newtons or oatmeal bars or peanut butter cups. During a break in the cold weather I washed his car. He acknowledged nothing. In previous years I would have found a thank-you note on my dresser; he might have taken me to lunch. It's true that his solicitude had always coexisted with a controlled bluster, an arrogance I'd witnessed from the sidelines of medical meetings and in unsatisfactory restaurants. But he'd always responded to appeasement, to the phrase "I see your point," to the free drink sent by the manager. And always he was protective of my mother, of Randi, of me. We were beautiful, he said, we were smart, we were angels. Especially Randi.


* * *


    It's vacation. We are in Maine. I am picking blueberries with my mother, and my father and Randi are on the dock, fishing. Randi must be about nine. I am seven. I watch my father tug at her ponytail; she grins up at him, then reels in a sunfish big enough to keep. My father holds the hooked fish in the air, where it flops about. He and Randi grin and grin. She is slick as an eel in her green one-piece. I stuff my mouth with blueberries.

    "Hey," my mother says. "Save those."

    I open my hand and offer her several half-crushed berries. She relents and eats a few, but moves the bucket out of my reach and hands me a Styrofoam cup to use for picking. When I look out toward the dock again, Randi is holding up the now-dead fish and waving it in the direction of my mother. My mother stands up and waves back. "Great," she yells. "Marvelous."


* * *


    Fantasy 1: I happen to be in New Haven and arrive at the scene of the fire in time to pull Randi out alive. Everyone is stunned by my courage and skill, even the fire squad. Randi and I hug each other and cry. Before I can berate her for being in that house, on that night, for being asleep too long, for exposing me to endless wrath and sorrow, she apologizes. She also apologizes for ever calling me an airhead.


    Fantasy 2: Randi's house goes up in flames, but she escapes unscathed. This moment of threat and escape—the sirens, the flames, the coldness of the night—shakes Randi enough that she sheds a layer of arrogance. She begins calling me long distance and sending gifts through the mail. She tells me how lucky she feels to be my sister.


    Fantasy 3: I am the one who escapes the fire. Randi rescues me, takes me to a good hotel, and stays up until I fall asleep. The next day, everything is fine. She gives me her favorite sweater and we order room service.


    Fantasy 4: I am the one who escapes the fire. I do it without Randi's help. She is amazed at my bravery and luck. She admits to her friends that she underestimated me. "She was always sweet," Randi says, "but I thought she was hapless. Was I ever wrong." After that she wants us to take vacations together. "Let's go where you want," she says.


    Fantasy 5: There is no fire.


* * *


    I thought about the fish in Maine. I thought I was dying. In the bathroom I would read the label on my father's package of razor blades and assess the blueness of the veins in my wrists. Then I would sit on the white tile floor, weep, and wait for the weeping to recede into a distanced calm. It was then I felt Randi's absence in its cleanest form: an endless, zero-gravity drifting, a world of lonely air.

    Contemplating the razor blade left me oddly belligerent. I'd leave matchbooks around the house for my mother to scoop up and hide. The day I dropped an heirloom teacup and she slapped me, I began to sing "Oklahoma!" as I swept up the shards of china roses. I cleared my father's drinks before he was finished with them, and one night at dinner when he spouted about wanting silence, I surprised all of us by telling him to find a monastery. But these moments were rare and left my parents increasingly convinced that I had no sense of judgment: all common sense had perished with Randi.

    After four months in Newton, I looked as if I'd been living underground. I was pale as a nightcrawler, and thin: I'd lost ten pounds and my clothes hung about me. I became disoriented in traffic and my old shyness surfaced with strangers. But I began small forays into the neighborhood, alone. Evenings at the cinema by myself. I favored independent films with offbeat characters who traveled a lot, or films where someone escaped from one country into another, took trains, or rode bicycles long distances. I would buy my ticket and hang about the lobby, reading the posted movie reviews and jumping if anyone bumped into me or asked me the time. After a few weeks, the man at the concession started giving me medium-sized popcorn when I ordered small. He said nothing about it, just took my money and smiled and went on to the next customer.


* * *


    That April, I turned twenty-one. It was a mild, muddy day, and in the afternoon I took the train into the city and bought myself a spring dress, a print of blue roses, which I wore out of the store. Aunt Natalie called from New York and sent red tulips. My father left me a pair of silver earrings on the breakfast table, and before dinner he took out the Polaroid. Although we had always taken photographs on our birthdays, no one had touched the camera since Thanksgiving; there was relief and pleasure in my father's retrieval of it. He was almost jovial, loading my arms with tulips, photographing me alone, photographing me with my mother, orchestrating shots for my mother to take of me with him, and, finally, setting the self-timer and rushing over for a photo of the three of us. We laid the photos out on the table, watched ourselves emerge through the murky green and yellow stages of each print: my mother's smile a bit taut, my father's face a bit flushed, my lips together in small smiles, all of us surprised.

    "Look at the two of you," my father said. "Beautiful." He kissed my mother's cheek. "Beautiful," he said. He kissed me on the forehead.

    "Such a pretty dress," my mother said.

    We sat down to salmon and asparagus. My father uncorked a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and poured glasses for the three of us. He asked me about my day in Boston. He asked me whether I was getting bored in Newton.

    "Maybe it's time to go to school again," he said.

    I pictured Vermont, mountains, unbridled green.

    "Take a look at Brandeis," he said. "Take a look at Harvard." Both schools were within ten miles of the house.

    "I hadn't thought of them," I said.

    "What would you want to study?" my mother said. "Anthropology? Wasn't that it?"

    "Maybe," I said, "that could be interesting," even though I only wanted to watch films. My father tapped his fork against the table and then speared a piece of salmon. "Hmm," he said, waving the fork in figure eights. "Nothing wrong with anthropology, but you'd have to be serious about a field like that. You'd have to want graduate school."

    "Oh."

    "I didn't go to graduate school," my mother said.

    "It's a different era," my father said.

    "I'll give it some thought," I said.

    "Abe, she can't know if she wants graduate school before she's taken any courses."

    "I'm just saying," my father said. "Be practical. What's so bad about being practical? Amy, what about biology?"

    I shrugged.

    "Or computers," my father said.

    "Maybe," I said.

    "Abe," my mother said, "if she wants to study anthropology, let her study anthropology."

    "Anthropology's fine. Amy, go ahead, study anthropology. Marian, don't misinterpret me."

    "I think I heard you correctly," my mother said, "Anyway, Amy, we're happy to get you a car. The Green Line is a pain in the neck."

    "Thank you," I said.

    "We can start looking this week," my father said. "I have a patient in the business."

    No one mentioned Bennington, a place I had liked, a place not so very far from Newton. I didn't say that I missed the mountains. I didn't say I'd forgotten how to be on my own but wanted to remember, if I could. Why spoil my own birthday, the shimmer of those tulips, the most peace we'd had since Randi's death? So I changed the subject. I asked my mother about her gardening plans.

    Later my mother brought out the cake, angel food studded with strawberries. She sliced it and handed out the slices and sang to me. My father cheerfully mumbled along. At the end of the singing there was nothing for me to do but eat: she had brought no candles.

    The lack was so striking that I found myself staring at the cake and not lifting a fork. I glanced up at each of my parents and back down at the cake. I shrugged. I blew air across the top of the slice. "For luck," I said. I stuck my fork into airy whiteness.

    "Was that necessary?" my mother said.

    "Was what necessary? There weren't candles," I said.

    "And you know why," my mother said.

    I looked down at the rose-print dress, my thin white arms. Suddenly, I felt ridiculous, a bony, flawed girl trying to pass for pretty, trying to pass for whole. I almost nodded assent. But it was my birthday. I was twenty-one. I should have been in a bar drinking champagne with college buddies. I should have been kissing a man. "Birthday cakes usually have candles," I said.

    "If you don't want the cake, don't eat it," my mother said.

    "What's the matter with the cake?" my father said.

    "I just wanted something to wish on."

    My mother bit her lip.

    "Can't you appreciate that your mother baked you a cake?" my father said.

    I tried to keep my tone even, but the words came out clipped. "Thanks for the cake," I said to my mother.

    "What's that snottiness?" my father said.

    "You think I'm going to give you lit candles?" my mother said. "After what you did?"

    "What did she do ?" my father said.

    "Two fingers," I said. "Two fingers and there aren't even scars."

    "Don't talk to me about scars," my mother said.

    "Scars," I said, "show up after injuries. Some people have appendix scars. There's a movie called Scarface I don't think you'd like."

    "Amy, be quiet," my father said.

    "It's stupid, Mom," I said. "Not even one birthday candle. I would have blown it out. I would have made a wish and blown it out."

    "Shut up," my father said.

    "I don't want to shut up." I rose and began to clear the table. "I'll go talk somewhere else."

    "You sit down," my father said. "You eat that cake."

    "I'm not hungry," I said.

    My father grabbed me by the arm and pushed me down into the chair. He picked 'up a forkful of cake and shoved it at my mouth. He held it there, gripping my forearm, until I bit into the piece. When he moved his hand away, I spit it back at him.

    "That's it," he said.

    I tried to make a dash for the door, but before I could sidestep him, my father grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me back against the wall. "What's wrong with you?" he shouted. He was shaking me, his face fierce and red, his breath heavy with liquor and fish. "Answer me," he shouted. Twice my head banged back against the wall. I closed my eyes. "Answer me," he repeated. I began humming a two-note phrase, the first note slightly higher than the second—see saw see saw. I didn't move.

    "Abe," I heard my mother say. "Abe."

    His hands released, and I sensed him backing away from me. When I opened my eyes, he was beside his chair, incredulous, gazing at his palms. He sagged and looked up at me. "Amy," he said. His voice caught, and he regained it only long enough to say my mother's name. "Marian," he was begging, "Marian," and weeping. He fell back into his chair, and my mother went to him then, held him, rocked him, my father leaning his head against her belly, sobbing. Like a sleepwalker, I left the house.

    Most of this took place within three or four minutes, for part of which I was sightless. Should I stick with my stream of perception, including darkness, or should I reconstruct what I did not see and film mise-en-scène from a medium shot? Should my mother be in the frame at all times?


    Afterward, neither of my parents mentioned that night. The cake vanished. The photographs vanished. For a few days my father whistled comfortless, unidentifiable tunes. My mother remained watchful. I became a different Amy: sly, calculating, untouchable. I did not eat meals with my parents. Or talk. I quietly sold off the one piece of stock I owned and converted the proceeds into traveler's checks. I emptied my bank account. I scouted the house for cash.

    A week after my birthday, when my mother was at the supermarket, I left a note on the counter and left Newton. I took with me no photos or mementos. My departure from the house seemed as ordinary as any other: I locked the side door, picked my way across the rain-puddled walk. I counted my change for the Green Line train, switched to the Red Line, crossed the traffic-filled blocks between South Station and the Trailways terminal. Somewhere in Ohio, I called my father's office and left a message for Barry Levitz. The buses I rode wove on across the country, through flat expanses of prairie, into mountains, stopping at Burger Kings and Pizza Huts and twenty-four-hour truckstops. I washed and brushed my teeth in the restaurant bathrooms and lived on grilled cheese and french fries. Within a few days I reached California.

    For a couple of nights I stayed at the Hilton near Union Square in San Francisco, walked the city, and invented possible aliases for myself, mixing in the names of streets: Melissa Grant, Joan Vallejo, Margaret Montgomery. I renamed myself Amy Montgomery and moved to Berkeley with that name, to a shared house near Rockridge. For the first six months I contacted my parents only through Barry, calling the office from pay phones.

    It's me. Tell them I'm fine.

    Where are you?

    I'll call you in a couple of weeks.

    I never said where I was and never stayed on the line more than two minutes. Was this cruel? I feared my parents would fly to San Francisco and comb the streets for me. I don't think I was wrong.

    Those first months, I kept to myself. I smoked clove cigarettes and sat in cheap Chinese restaurants eating soup and reading about silent movie greats. I went to matinees alone. After a year of working in cafes, I landed a staff assistant job at KQED and enrolled in film classes. I began to live in a social world.

    I have lived in Berkeley for six years: sometimes I think I stay here simply because the pomegranate trees surprise me, because of the shock of green in February, because I still find the bay beautiful. I have befriended several women. Sometimes I have boyfriends, interesting men inclined toward social justice or film, who can speak fluent Spanish or know how to backpack. I have not fallen in love.

    I could say, yes, time heals. I wouldn't be wrong, but there are scars we can't always name. I cannot help but think we were disfigured to begin with, and the fire illuminated the twists to our hearts and limbs. I have visited my parents in Newton a few times. The first time, I insisted on staying at the Marriott. They came to meet me there for dinner and I wept to see them. My mother sat close beside me, stroking my hand. My father was pale and lost. "Would you come back to Boston?" he said. "My Amy, won't you come back?"

    "I can't," I said. "This is all I can do."


* * *


    Some nights I wake up and the air smells of eucalyptus and gardenias; my skin is warm. For an instant I could be a young girl named Amy, my sister sleeping, my father listening to Mozart, eyes closed, my mother reading in the bath. I know why theorists now write about seduction and desire. And I know why they want us to wake up, to see the seams in films, to remember that images and sounds are pasted together. How else can we keep from tumbling, blindly, into fantasy? How will we know if we have, in the larger scheme of things, been pushed against a wall?

    And yet for me there is still the dream of making internal life visible. Of finding characters I can believe in. The hope that, this time, my trust will not be betrayed. There is the dream of wholeness. The dream of reconciliation. And, there is my desire for a simple plot, for the unity that never quite arrives in daily life, for true closure. These days, I look for the sort of closure that is not false and is not death. Is there such a thing?

    I know this: fire blooms, blooms again, marking us, dismantling what we believed inviolable. At times we can do nothing but record its stunning recklessness. Later, we sift through the ashes by hand.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

House Fires 1
Edie in Winter 21
Heart of Hearts 38
Confessions 52
Common Light 70
Sharks 95
Dreaming of the Snail Life 114
Rubies 130
Girl on a Couch 143
Strays 163
The Good Life 186
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)