he sirens ring out clear; they mingle in the air with wood smoke, puffs of exhaled breath. The sound seems to grow nearer, then farther away again, tossed against stands of trees, hills and hollows.
Helen stands at the end of her driveway, if it can be said to support such a name. It is barely one car-length from her front door to the edge of the road. Her trailer is nestled in a curve. The two-lane road in front was paved only a couple of years earlier. Her nearest neighbor is a quarter-mile away, but sound travels far and fast in these woods. When the wind blows the right way, a hunter’s gunshot can seem to come from just outside the back door.
She looks calm, housecoat huddled about her, as if it might ward off the December cold. She cradles a large tomcat to her chest. To anyone who asks, she will say that she was asleep on the couch when the fire started.
“I’d have been a goner for sure if Stripes hadn’t come and licked my face,” she will tell them.
If all this happened on one of the TV crime dramas she favors, the investigators would find that the iron was left on, and that the fire it started spread quickly to the curtains nearby. But they would not be able to say whether she turned the iron on to heat up, then walked to the mirror, tousled her hair just enough, drew her housecoat about her, and picked up her cat and walked out into the night. If her voice were tremulous enough when she told the story of how Stripes saved her, they would put those thoughts out of their minds altogether. She is eighty, someone’s grandmother, great-grandmother, even. Who could accuse her of such a crime without feeling guilty themselves at the prospect of being wrong?
Anyway, this is a small town. The authorities lack the know-how and the manpower to do the work she sees on the TV crime dramas.
A truck pulls to the side of the road. A man, a woman, and a child pile out. Her neighbors, the Kirks. The woman speaks first. “Thank God you’re alright! We heard on the police scanner that there was a fire, and then the sirens, and then they said where the fire was. We came as soon as they said where.”
For a moment she is touched by their concern, that they would pile into the truck in the cold, at night, no less, to make sure of her well being. A second vehicle pulls up, and then a third drives past slowly, the driver craning his neck at the spectacle. It parks up the road and a youngish man walks back to the scene. Helen has never met him. He is interested only in watching the small disaster unfold.
The firefighters arrive soon. She hears the words “insurance money” pass between people in the small crowd that has gathered. She is not concerned with the money. Most likely she will move in with her oldest son, Tom, and his wife, Linda, who she thinks is a sweet girl. If not, the money will be handy. It can pay for an apartment in one of those assisted living communities. She almost smiles at the thought of having someone around all the time. Then she hears the same voice say, “Well, anytime a fire happens, people will talk.”
She watches flames swallow the front wall.
“Let them talk,” she thinks. “It will be the first time they’ve said my name in years.”
This week, Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure
is being guest edited by photographer JA Mortram.
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John McIntyre’s work has appeared in The American Scholar and Intelligent Life. He lives in Newark, NJ. His contributions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.