There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them.
When the house on the next street went up in flames for the second night in a row, I wondered again what the hell I was doing in Syracuse.
Let me say right up front that those fires had nothing to do with the murdered sisters. They’d been dead nineteen years by then, their throats cut one state-fair night back in 1969 when I was three thousand miles away, about to start grade school in California.
Still, if I think of those girls, of everything that happened once I knew, it’s the image of that twice-burnt house I flash on first. Like maybe it was one long sly Dada-surrealist wink from the universe, a warning I should have been hip enough to catch.
The first night was already hot, so still the whine of a neighbor’s dog carried right through our bedroom window. I heard a screen door yaw wide to let him out, the tired spring slapping it closed behind, the click of canine toenails on sidewalk. I kept turning my pillow over and over, trying to find one cool spot on which to rest my cheek, but by the time that dog scratched to be let back in, I’d given up on sleep and rolled my grumpy ass right out of bed.
Wandering through our apartment, I wished for a breath of air from the second-story porch, just a shred of stray breeze meandering this far inland. No such luck. I ducked my head under the kitchen faucet and stretched out along the seven-foot legless purple Naugahyde sofa my husband Dean dragged home from a train car he’d rehabbed.
I hated this object, if only because the thing made my frail Waspy castoffs look even more ridiculous. The pair of Hepplewhite demi-lune tables. The painted Bavarian linen press. The stately between-wars globe amidst whose black oceans you could still find Ceylon and Formosa and the Polish Corridor.
I was twenty-five that summer, and everything I owned was scratched and warped, ring-marked by generations of abandoned cocktails. It was pure jetsam, the crap that gets thrown overboard on purpose. My money is so old there’s none left.
In that sense, Syracuse and I deserved each other. The place used to churn out everything from rifles to soda ash, helicopters to typewriters, but by the time I showed up they’d paved over the Erie Canal and gutted the great mills.
There were still traces of those glory days if you knew where to look, things like our radiator covers, made of the steel sheets from which Remington and Smith-Corona letter-key stems had been punched, leaving behind a delicate herringbone tracery. The ghosts of history are in the details, in the negative space.
I scrunched my pillow against the sofa arm and started reading a garage-sale paperback of In Cold Blood. Four pages on, I heard this long, dull fwhooomp from outside—noise so deep it echoed in my ribs.
There was a pillar of smoke framed all majestic in the porch doorway. It twisted black against the city-pink night sky, billows delineated by hundreds of thousands of red-gold sparks, pinpoint gems helixing up to join the stars. Exactly three a.m., if you believed the clock in the stove.
Soon there were fire trucks in the distance, their Doppler-effect wails punctuated with staccato chatter-and-yelp as they barreled through each intersection. When the engines rolled into the next street, they cut the sirens but kept all the lights going.
I stood up, dazzled by flashbulb pops of color from between the tight-packed old triple-deckers—strobing to pick out every dent in the alleyway garbage cans. I chucked the book and snaked on my flip-flops.
Outside, an ancient Oldsmobile muttered up the hill. It crossed the bright alley’s mouth, caught in momentary silhouette: exhaust blue with oil, wheel wells rusted to filigree. The fire sucked moisture from the air, tightening the skin along my cheeks.
I cut across the tar-soft street and between the woodframe hulks facing ours. For just a second, coming out the other side, it was like stepping into one of that guy Weegee’s photos from a forties copy of Life: black-and-white, some police-scanner tragedy back when everyone wore hats and cars were bulbous as the Hindenburg.
I blinked and it was just my neighbors milling slack-jawed, tank tops and stretch shorts bursting with that translucent flesh I always attribute to Kool smoke and government cheese. I stepped in among them and chastised myself: no worse snob than a poor relation.
Helmeted firemen, sweat-slicked in rubber coats, rushed to yank down equipment. They raised a ladder and we sighed, our eyes fixed on the rooftop flames, the heavy hose-arcs of water. We stood mesmerized until the trucks left, then stumbled home with that aftermath smell of bucket-doused campfire caught in our teeth. Insult to injury.
How absurd that it should all happen again the next night, the absentee owner maybe wanting to squeeze just that little bit more from his insurance. Three in the morning and there I was back out on the sofa, reading Capote and looking up in response to the onslaught of crackling noise.
For a minute I thought I should peel myself off the Naugahyde and shake Dean awake, but it was only an hour before his alarm would go off, even on a Sunday. For him that summer was all dawn-to-dusk welding and invention, at his family’s farm or with a railgrinder crew in Canada.
I should have gone to bed myself, but waited until after they’d put out the second fire. In the quiet that followed, there was the thump of a great storm sweeping in from the west. I knew the air would chill and sweeten in its wake.
A crack of street light spilled inward when I opened our bedroom door. Dean’s long legs were tangled in the top sheet, his summer-gilt hair bright against the pillow. I sat on the edge of the mattress and he stirred half-awake, pulling me in close when I stretched out beside him.
I’ll say again that the fires had nothing to do with the dead girls, but still those two nights are what kicked it all off for me. They were the last time I found sleep without first having to acknowledge, in the hollow dark, at least partial guilt for someone else’s murders.