Fire

Barbara Ruth

Cape Ann, Massachusetts, March 1965, late morning. As soon as Lou and Marie came through the door I could tell that their talk had not gone well. I’d wanted Lou to tell her on the phone as soon as it started, or at least in a letter. No, he kept saying (perhaps the only “no” between us), he would wait until she came back home. She was getting a ride with a fellow student as far as Gloucester. He would tell her when he picked her up. Marie pushed open the door while Lou was still creaking up the stairs. She hugged and kissed her kids, then examined them for damage. Wrapping them up in her arms, she looked somewhere to the side of me, and said: “And there isn’t even heat?”

I’d done the best I could, feeding rolled up newspapers into the kitchen wood stove to make the fire grow. The five of us gathered around the source of warmth: two little boys, one married couple in their thirties, and me, nineteen. The boys clung to their mother wholeheartedly; she had been away two months. The adults—and I guess I’ll count myself as one—would have preferred to keep our distance.

But it was so very cold. Just that morning, a few hours before Marie arrived home from her winter residency at Goddard College Adult Degree Program, the furnace had broken down. None of us grown-ups could get it going again. So there we huddled, in our parkas, heavy jeans, woolen scarves and Russian hats. “We need the body heat,” Marie said, her voice flat, resigned.

For two months, Lou and I had enjoyed the zealotry of new converts to the religion of free love and sex without jealousy. We kept telling each other Marie would see how liberated and enlightened and happy we all could be, once it was explained to her. But now, unspoken words like “adultery” and “divorce” vibrated among the three of us, the five of us. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Now I huddled, contributing my animal warmth in this wintry room. I wished I could go to the sauna, down the street half a mile or so, where I heated up so many nights while I played house with Lou. And that’s what it was; Marie hired me to play house with him.

But of course she didn’t. She hired me to KEEP house, cook meals and take care of the kids while Lou was at work.

Before the Marie-Lou talk, I had planned to spend that night with them, then catch a ride to Boston with a friend of a friend. Lou and I had convinced ourselves Marie would join us in their bed. We’d lovingly detailed the night the three of us would share—my parting gift to them.

But Marie made other plans. Ignoring me, she told Lou I was to leave as soon as possible. I called and found a bus that headed out that afternoon from Gloucester; Lou would drive me to the station.

Marie fixed macaroni and hot dogs and opened a jar of applesauce. She pulled the kitchen table as close as possible to the fire and set out four plates. I shivered through their lunch.

Finally I ventured, “Shouldn’t someone call about the furnace?”

“I’m going to have to take care of that,” Lou answered, studying his cup of coffee. The youngest boy needed his hot dog cut into smaller pieces. My hands started to reach for a knife and fork, then fell to my sides. It wasn’t my job to take care of that anymore. Instead I moved to the side of the stove, turned my back on them, and pressed my fingers onto the scorching black iron.

Marie and I never talked that day or after, and whatever Lou and I discussed on the ride to the station is long forgotten. I can still see her bleak face as she let me stand by her kitchen fire for a few hours “for the body heat.” I can still feel the sear and then the blistered numbness, of my ten warrior marks.

Author Portrait

Barbara Ruth is drawn to the edges, the in-between, the transitional lenses of her glasses, the equinoxes, the mixing of watercolors on the thirsty paper, the going up and coming down, the phases of moon and tide, not this/not that. She is a physically disabled neurodivergent photographer, poet, fiction writer, essayist and memoirist whose work has been published in Australia, Canada, India, the UK and the US, and widely anthologized in disability, feminist, literary and queer anthologies, including QDA: Queer Disability Studies, The Spoon Knife Anthology, and Barking Sycamores: Year One. She lives in San Jose, California.