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When Auntie Ned spontaneously combusts, she leaves behind a pair of smoking orthopedic shoes and a house that she wills to her best friend's daughters. Amy and Gwendolyn are sisters--closer than close--who move into Ned's bungalow and inherit her legacies: a closet full of housedresses, a freezer full of meat, and the passionate flames of unrequited desire.
Amy's appetites--for meat, for sex, for getting her way--are ferocious, while Gwendolyn longs for a more normal existence but can't refuse her big sister anything at all. Not the intrusion of Dr. Minor, Professor of Pyrophenomena, who has come to investigate Auntie Ned's death. And not the presence in their bed of Roosevelt, a troubled carpenter whose steamy entanglement with the sisters will either save them all or create a situation that's bound to combust.
...a good Hollywood thriller... as well done as an exercise in flash defrosting. Spontaneous microwaves rather than thaws... - Kirkus Reviews
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||279 KB|
About the Author
Diana Wagman is a novelist and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles. Her first novel, Skiin Deep, was published in 1996, and her first produced screenplay, Delivering Milo, will be released in 2000.
Read an Excerpt
By Diana Wagman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Diana Wagman
All rights reserved.
Auntie Ned burped up the warm taste of blood, of the red rare, rib-eye steak she had had for dinner. Her long fingers, knuckles enlarged with arthritis, slid along her yellow Formica tabletop, cleaning up the final nonexistent crumbs. Another evening dripped shadow by shadow into night. She would move soon, from the table to the green sofa in her living room, turn on a light, turn on the TV, pass the time until she went to bed. She felt a bubbling in her intestines, tasted the sour starts and stops of regurgitation in the back of her throat. Heartburn.
Her hand, this crone's liver-spotted and twisted hand, had once caressed the curve of a perfect flank, stroked the rump of her deepest desire, traced the swoop of each rib. These old fingers had tangled with hair and buttons, had worshiped, wiggling into orifices, touching, praying, adoring.
Another burp. A harder, hot pinch in her bowels, then down to her thighs, around to the small of her back. She shifted in her yellow vinyl chair. She wanted to scream, but screaming wouldn't help. Get up, she told herself, pick up the phone, write a letter. No one on the other end. Her throat was swelling, scarlet and inflamed. Her flattened breasts, her thighs sagging like old curtains were hers alone for the rest of time. She banged the table with both hands. And again. She smelled her own bitter perspiration, felt the sweat bubble up in the wrinkles on her forehead, slide into the creases of her neck, boil in the folds under her arms.
She looked down. Steam escaped between the buttons of her flowered blouse. She opened her shirt. Her skin was crimson red, the pores blistering, oozing an odd yellow pus. She had the liquid feeling of a fever. Get up, she said to herself again, drink some water. Her feet had melted, fused with the floor. She wasn't going anywhere.
The heat inside Auntie Ned expanded, the burning pain dropped between her legs. She tried to see the face she had loved, to feel the chilled hands on her sweltering body, the icy strands of blond hair in her mouth. She panted with the pain. She was crackling now. She could hear her bones turn into kindling, her blood stewing, simmering. Her heart. Her hands clawed and scratched for the past. Remembering. Remembering. She was not sorry. Not sorry. Her heart detonated, a final shuddering explosion of surrender.
The smoke alarm woke the young thief in the duplex next door, startled him out of a heavy sleep. He looked out his window. He didn't see smoke, but there was a smell in the air, sweet and greasy. He knew his old lady neighbor was in trouble. He pulled on his pants and called 911 from one of his stolen cellular phones. Then he left. He had three good televisions and a collection of car stereos in his closet. He didn't want to answer any questions.
The fireman who broke down Auntie Ned's front door had never seen anything like it, but the fire chief ran his finger through the yellow oil coating the walls and knew what some people would think. He was a trim man, still young, only three weeks and three days away from his gold watch. He didn't want to open that can of worms. Not now. He called the coroner, told him it was a kitchen accident.
Nine days later, Roosevelt James Montgomery parked his old green panel truck in front of the small clapboard house. There was no exterior evidence of a fire. He admired the bright yellow paint in the dreary neighborhood; the roses, pink, peach, and red, lining the front walk. An orange and black plastic bird perched in a pot by the front door. Its nylon wings hung limp, waiting for a breeze.
Roosevelt set his toolbox on the porch and looked for the bell. She opened the door before he could ring. His hand froze over the ivory button, one freckled finger slightly extended as he looked at her. A woman with long blond hair, not smiling, wearing tight lavender pedal pushers over slim schoolgirl thighs and eating a mint-green ice cream cone. Eight-fifteen in the morning and she was licking ice cream. He watched her pink tongue move in slow laps around the green playing field. He dropped his hand.
"I'm here about the floor," he said.
"I know," she answered and smiled. Her perfect teeth were surrounded by green milk.
He looked away, squinted up the sunny street. It was a run-down neighborhood, Echo Park, between east LA and downtown. Quiet this early in the morning. He figured at night it would really hop with tire squeals, Latin music, the more than occasional gunshot.
"Come on in," she said.
He followed her into the house, watching her bare golden calves and brand-new pink Keds sneakers.
They went into the kitchen. It was bright orange and flowered, filled with the knickknacks and fussiness of old age. There were handwritten notes taped to the cabinets, above the sink, on the fridge. The handwriting was narrow and slanted and from where he stood impossible to read. Inspirational messages, he supposed.
He could still smell smoke, the faint memento of something burnt.
"You should've seen the mess," she said. "Everything was covered in this ash—soot, sort of. Only it was yellow—and slimy—like pig fat."
"Gross," he said.
What was she, he thought, thirty? Older? Her hair was long and shiny blond. Her eyes were bountiful and brown. Her cheeks were smooth, but she had that confidence, that ease of an older woman. Experience could do that too. He looked away. He was thirty-one. He was good-looking. Okay, he was just a carpenter, but he had red hair and freckles and since his wife left him there had been plenty of girls.
"Here," she said.
She moved around the yellow Formica and chrome-edged table. On the floor, fused into the gold-flecked linoleum, was a charred circle of black. It was a twelve-inch spot, so badly burned that the linoleum had melted, sinking into the subflooring, and probably below.
"How'd it happen?"
"She start a campfire?" He had seen the results of stranger behavior.
"Spontaneous human combustion."
He looked at her.
"She burned, from the inside out. The chair was destroyed," she said.
"Your aunt was sitting in a chair and she exploded."
She paused. "It was a kitchen chair, just like that one."
She gestured to his hand where it rested on the back of a yellow-vinyl-and-chrome chair. Roosevelt jerked his hand away, wiped it on the front of his gray coveralls, put it in his pocket.
She shrugged. "Look at the curtains."
Directly above the liquefied linoleum was a window framed in white curtains. A row of skinny daisies crawled along the bottom. They were Kmart grandmother ugly.
"Nice," Roosevelt said.
"They're hideous," she laughed, "but that's the way I found them. Not burned, not even singed. Nothing. And six inches from the chair."
She looked at the curtains. He looked at her. Her T-shirt was white, white like it had never been dirty. The round neck scooped low. He could see her collarbones, the thumb-sized indentation at the base of her throat.
"Do you have a basement?" he asked.
She turned her head, looked at him slowly without blinking. "Why?"
"I, I, I need to go down there," he said. "Look at these floorboards."
She tossed her almost-finished ice cream cone into the deep porcelain sink. He held on tightly to his toolbox as she led him to the basement door.
He passed a rack of cups and read one of the inspirational sayings: SCREW THE FUCKING BASTARDS. Quickly he read another on a sugar canister: JUST SAY NO. NO FUCKING WAY.
"How old was she?" he asked.
"Sixty-eight," she said as she opened the basement door.
A cool stench of rancid air escaped. Roosevelt's palms were sweating.
"Shit," she said, "I forgot to empty the freezer."
Roosevelt let out a breath, nodded.
"The electricity was off for a week. Look in that long cupboard there, will you? Get me a plastic bag."
Roosevelt turned to the cupboard at his left.
"Not that one." She sounded exasperated. "The one behind you."
Roosevelt quickly opened the right cupboard. He was anxious to please her, worried that he'd seem slow or stupid. The cupboard was neat, a blue-handled mop and broom set stored in their proper places. On the broom handle was taped another motivational message, RAM IT UP HIS ASS!
Roosevelt found the large-size plastic trash bags and pulled one from the box. He handed it to her. She didn't say thank you.
The basement was badly lit, a single bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the room. In a corner was the chair. The yellow vinyl was gone, burned away. The frame was mangled and dripping black chrome icicles. The chair had melted.
"Jesus Christ," he said without thinking, then looked at her. "Sorry."
"It takes your breath away, doesn't it?"
He nodded. That was it exactly. "And that's how they found it ... her?"
"Yes," she said. She walked to the old upright freezer and readied the plastic bag. "The chair, the burn on the floor, a pile of ashes." She took a deep breath. "And her legs. Just from the knees down. Did you see the picture? On the eleven o'clock news?"
"I only watch the news when I'm in the hospital."
He wasn't kidding, but she laughed. It was a nice sound, her chortles surprisingly deep and joyful.
"Anyway," she said, "the TV didn't do it justice."
Her white T-shirt twisted against her breasts as she reached in her back pocket and took out a black and white photo and handed it to him. It was just a copy of the police photo, but he could clearly see the ruined chair and beneath it a hill of cremated ash. Two skinny old-lady legs, from the knees down, protruded from the dusty gray mound.
"See her shoes?" She leaned in to look over his shoulder. A strand of her blond hair brushed his cheek. "I had to ID what was left." He felt her breath in his ear. "That's how I knew it was her."
He struggled for something meaningful to say, managed a grunt, a nod. Idiot.
She put the photo back in her pocket. She stepped away from him and opened the freezer. The stink of rotten meat was stunning. He gagged.
Matter-of-factly, she began tossing soft, bloodred packages into the trash bag.
Roosevelt turned his face away to take a breath. "Tell me again what happened to her."
"From what I've read," she said, "this is always how it is with people who spontaneously combust. Their extremities, usually their legs, sometimes an arm, sometimes their head and neck, are left behind, virtually burn free. The rest of the body is vaporized."
His eyes were watering. The packages of meat slapped against each other in the bag like a hand on a wet thigh. He shifted his toolbox. He wanted her to keep talking. He didn't want to look away, look up at the damaged floorboards, not just yet.
"Why does this happen?" he asked, and he meant more than just the old woman who had erupted.
"No one knows for sure."
Slap. Another flat package of rotten meat.
She continued, "I thought there would be visitors. Experts. Scientists who knew about this phenomenon. But no one's called. No one's been by." Slap. Slap. "They even called it 'Spontaneous Human Combustion' on the news. But then they laughed."
Roosevelt would have laughed too. "She was your aunt?"
"Actually she was my mother's best friend. No real relation. But I called her Auntie Ned. We were very close." She paused, sighed.
She looked sad and young and Roosevelt wanted to comfort her, dead meat and all. He didn't move. She bent over, reaching to the lower freezer shelf. Roosevelt stared at her ass, heart-shaped in lavender cotton.
"Help me with this, will you?" She stood up and turned to him, handing him the bulging trash bag.
"She ate a lot of meat," he said.
"Sure did. It's something we had in common." She tossed her hair off her shoulder. It fell heavily, giving her a pat on the back. "You vegetarian?" she asked.
"I am now," he said.
She laughed and took the bag from him. She held the top with one hand and spun the sack with the other, twisting its neck. She was strong. He saw the muscles in her forearm, the clench of her hand on the bag. He took a step back from her without knowing why.
"So, there it is," she said and nodded with her head toward the furnace.
"The spot where it happened." He looked at her stupidly. "The floorboards."
"Oh, yeah. Right."
He had to blink to come back, to concentrate on the job at hand. He stepped over a Christmas box and slid behind the furnace and looked up. He couldn't really see anything, just a dark circle, a scar from the burning linoleum. He took a pencil from his pocket and stepped up on his toolbox. He poked the beams, the flooring. Everything seemed solid.
"Doesn't seem to have damaged the floor joists or even the subflooring."
"I told you it was weird."
"This'll be an easy job."
She shrugged and headed up the purple wooden stairs.
He picked up his toolbox and trotted up behind her.
"Get the light, will you?"
Obediently, he turned and went down again. He pulled the string and took the stairs back up two at a time. He didn't want her to close the door and leave him down there, alone.
He began in the kitchen. He heard her upstairs humming to herself. He moved the table, lifting carefully. He took down the ugly curtains and laid them straight across the olive green sofa in the living room. There was an odor in the couch cushions, sweet and cloying.
He crouched over the hole, measured carefully. He would have to cut away the edges, make them straight, scrape away the remaining mastic, replace the plywood. He couldn't match the linoleum. It was ancient, discolored, unavailable.
"Excuse me?" he called to her from the bottom of the stairs.
"Come on up," she called back.
She was stripping the bed. She looked at him over an armful of faded turquoise sheets. He felt embarrassed, as if he had caught her dressing. The bare mattress, old and covered in blue ticking and buttons, was too obvious a surface between them.
"About the linoleum," he said. "I can't match it."
"Let's replace it. All of it."
He nodded, agreeing with her. "You could go to Carpet Land, one of those places. Watch the sales."
"Can't you do it?"
"I could. I mean, I know how."
"But you're busy. You don't have time."
"No. I have time."
"Great. I want something plain, and white."
"I'm not sure what it'll cost—"
He tried to be quiet going down the stairs. His work boots were clumsy and he was aware of his hazardous steel toes and his black soles that left scuff marks wherever he went.
"Cup of coffee?" She clattered down after him, her pale sneakers surprisingly loud.
She poured him a cup of black, thick coffee; didn't offer any milk or sugar. She took out a glass for herself, filled it with ice. She poured hot coffee over the cubes. The ice cracked and clattered in the glass.
"I love that," she said.
He moved the table back into the kitchen. And a chair. She sat down. He leaned against the counter.
He wanted to take this woman out on a date, to dinner and the movies. He wanted to bring her back home, kiss her under the yellow porch light, follow her upstairs. But he knew that was not her kind of date. He looked at her and imagined her head against a damp wall in a dark alley, half-dressed groping, the smell of garbage and sex.
He was chewing on his bottom lip. She smiled.
"How long do you think this job will take, Mr. Roosevelt?"
"Roosevelt's my first name. My whole name is Roosevelt James Montgomery. I think my mom thought I'd be a movie star."
"Your name is Clark?"
"That's my last name. My first name is Amy. Amy Clark."
"Pleased to meet you, Ms. Clark."
He put out his hand, anxious to touch her, even just to shake hands hello. Her fingers touched his and shocked him. Painfully. He yanked his hand back, wiped it against his leg.
"Sorry," she said. "Did I shock you?"
He was embarrassed, but didn't try to shake her hand again. "It's fine." He rubbed his fingers, saw her watching him, put them in his pocket.
"Amy is a pretty name," he said.
"My kid sister's name is Gwendolyn." Her face got soft, thinking of her sister. "I was always so jealous of her name."
She raised her brown eyes to him over the glass of coffee and ice. Her lashes were long, blond like her hair, a fringe of sunlight. Her nails were very short and even. Her hands looked capable, capable of anything.
"Have you heard of it?" she asked.
He thought hard, couldn't remember what they had been talking about. "Gwendolyn?" he squeaked.
She laughed. "Spontaneous Human Combustion."
Excerpted from Spontaneous by Diana Wagman. Copyright © 2000 Diana Wagman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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