Peter is driving home from the job interview when he sees the historical society on fire. It appears to him as a singular juxtaposition to a darkening sky, a swell of amorphous orange, red, and white spitting out blackened smoke and embers.
The fire awakens the faces of unsuspecting and unprepared businesses across the street. It might destroy the bookstore or the taqueria.
It sets asphalt ablaze. Its embers might be stars.
Peter doesn’t fear the fire. Someone else has surely called 911 and someone at the police station must be notifying the fire department. He looks in the side mirror of the truck in front of him and its driver is peeking back. In his rearview, a woman holds a cigarette out of the window, tapping its bud. Her cat-eye sunglasses mask wherever she might be looking. The truck turns right onto Maple and Peter follows it, leaving the waving fire behind.
The Maple Street sign reminds him of his oft-drunk, oft-high father who used to call side streets the “bastard children” of main roads. Peter remembers swimming alone in their inflatable pool and emerging to see his father having a Miller and a dubie with his mechanic buddies. The weed smoke mingled with the grill smoke while Peter ate charcoaled franks and frosted cookies his mother used to make in silence.
Then, one ordinary June, his father ran off with a bald woman to California and the backyard became entirely silent, except the occasional crackling of a distant fire.
Peter pulls into his driveway and looks back at the fire, faint enough to look like an oversized, twinkling candle.
The door creeks when he opens it, and he steps into a world of responsibility, one with stacks of bills on the kitchen island. He walks right past his wife, Petunia, who sits in a rocking chair in the corner of the family room. She could be a lamp, he thinks, shaded by her white lace nightgown. She’s looking outside at nothing in particular, sitting completely still as if she’s being painted. Peter doesn’t ask why she has yet to change clothes today.
He speaks into the space between them. “The historical society is on fire.”
Petunia is so unclear to him, sitting across the room, separated by an old wooden half-railing and thickening air. In the haze, she looks like her mother, an admirable woman who always worked more than one job and often crouched in her basement, dodging ICE raids.
Petunia doesn’t reply.
“I saw it driving home.” She still says nothing, and Peter feels obligated to say something else, anything else. “There’s fires everywhere these days.”
Petunia looks back out the window. A stack of logs has survived the desert winter, and the raspy, wild bushes whisper that nothing has changed.
She stands and walks toward Peter, passing him in the hallway as if he’s not present. He says sorry, steps back, and feels the breeze from her nightgown.
“And?” she asks.
“You mean, about the fire?”
“Oh. It was fine, I think. They’ll let me know next week.” She chops a chilled lime and drops it into her drink. It bubbles to the fragile surface. “And,” Peter says, “your day?”
He understands, as much as a man is able, why she remains silent.
He sees her as a lioness – a lioness who lives in the desert now, without a pride, and hates herself for it. He can hardly blame the lioness for baring her teeth at him, for seeking the destruction of her husband’s mane, if that is, in part, what the lioness is seeking.
Petunia walks to the bedroom and Peter finds himself alone in the hallway. He places an open palm on the hollow, white wall and remembers building it himself. The now-defunct company had started construction in the spring, but work had run into the summer. Metal tools had become searing metallic rods under the sun’s devilish heat.
He remembers the open house that autumn, when Petunia held his hand and her pregnant belly. The house smelled like flowers then.
The air is too thick in the hallway.
Peter finds Petunia in bed, reading from a little brown book. “Neruda” is carved in gold on its spine. He wonders what she finds in that thing, what she sees in it that she can’t see in him or in the world.
Petunia drops her book on her lap and rests her readers on her sweaty forehead. She sniffs. The lioness smells something.
She turns to look at Peter, and their eyes meet for the first time in days.
In this moment, he sees her as she is: a flower – captive – growing on a drying riverbed, blooming even though she can’t. Her pupils are planets, drowning in oceans, and Peter for once wants to dive into them.
A pop. A spark. Another spark. Peter can’t tell if the sound is in her eyes or in the house.
Larry Flynn teaches humanities at Culver Academies in Indiana and writes stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction. He earned an M.A. in journalism from Northwestern University and produced a documentary on the diverse veteran’s community in Aurora, Illinois, which was nominated for a regional Emmy. His writing has been published in Sports Illustrated, Merrimack Valley Magazine, and other greater-Boston newspapers.