A primary plant that grows on soil scarred by fire.
When it stopped, Charlie closed her book, put the headphones away, and listened for the back door to open and close. She got up from her chair and, following the renewed quiet, changed the lightbulb from white to red. She used a rag because in just twenty minutes a bulb can get hot enough to blister your fingertips. Then there were the sheets, because her mother was particular about the sheets. She took the stairs that lifted steeply from the kitchen and she turned toward darkness until she was on the landing. There, where nobody had made any effort to modernize, she would adjust the wicks on the lamps, scoop up the sheets that were left in the hall, and carry them down the stairs.
Most of the time the men respected the on-the-half-hour rule, but sometimes she had to narrow herself to allow them to move past. She was a thin girl, breasts beginning to turn forward. If the man touched her, brushed her with a shoulder or an elbow, he would flinch back, allow her to pass. Glance, but not look. Then he would continue up the stairs, to the last of the five rooms, the red room, the one with the sloping roof, the one with the ribbon on the doorknob.
Next, Charlie would go to the kitchen and down the narrow and darker basement stairs, to the modern washing machine. Three times a night she washed the sheets. If she was lucky and the weather was dry, she would hang them on the line. How she loved the smell of sheets left outside to dry.
When it started again, she closed the door to her bedroom and sat in the chair with her back to the door. She put the headphones on and opened the book and let it rest on her lap. Even though she had covered the walls with flattened cardboard boxes and old army blankets, the lights still flickered, and the fringe on the lampshade swayed with short punctuation. Ruby, her mother, could not do this without her.
There was a curse on the area for almost a hundred years. First it was the foreclosures and then the Great Depression. Following that, the mountain sucked the silver back into its veins. A colony of pine bark beetles destroyed most of the timber. A windstorm knocked it all down. There were years of drought and years of rain, and during this rain there were no forest fires to stimulate the economy. The rain ran down the hills. Rain that flooded the basements. Rain that bulged the river and kept everything green. Green grass, green wood, green wheat. Oh, the green wheat.
The result was that none of the men ever paid Ruby with cash. Bridles hung neatly on the back porch with harnesses, bits, spurs. In the salon were cases filled with pocket watches, eyeglasses, wedding rings and all the glitters of women's jewelry, engagement rings being common. Paintings hung on the walls, mostly Westerns but a few in the modern style as well. Fiddles, trumpets, even a sousaphone, a tiny wire horse that appeared to be galloping (its legs were attached to wheels). For generations, men had been very creative as to how they paid the ladies, and now the house on the hill looked less like a house of prostitution and more like a museum of wealth spent badly. Ruby even had two woodsheds filled to the roof. But the biggest prize was a saddle said to be used by Calamity Jane. Every man who came through the back door touched its pommel as he entered.
It was not quite spring and Charlie was in the basement doing laundry. Her brown hair had not yet turned golden, as it did on the first day of sun, and she was in a sour mood. The washing machine was thumping like a good man trying to get out of hell, and she did not hear the knock on the door. When she lifted the lid and rearranged the sheets, she heard his yell, and then she heard him leaving. By the time she ran up the stairs and opened the door, he was almost gone.
"Anyone there?" she called.
"Hello?" he said.
He came around from the side of the house, and she saw that he was cleaned up the old-fashioned way, with a white shirt. He smelled like old stories and lye. She knew he was not a customer when he took his hat off.
"I'm a man of God," he said. "Do you want to keep this house alive? Don't you want a husband and children?"
He stood long enough to let his words sink in, and then he spoke his real intention.
"Martha Jane stole my great-great-great grandpa's saddle and I want it back."
He pointed to the saddle that was in the middle of the porch: Calamity Jane's saddle. She looked at him for what seemed like a long time, and she saw that he was not going to leave without it.
"That saddle's been here about as long as this house has stood on this bluff," she said. "That's over a hundred years. I'd call that a hundred and fifty-dollar holding fee."
She was about to close the door on him but he stuck his foot in the gap and then put his fist in. When he opened the fist there was a roll of cash. She opened the door enough to look at him but he wouldn't look back at her. He kept his eyes down on his hands as he counted the bills. She had never seen so much money rolled up like that. But there it was. A man of God about to pay good money for a saddle worth nothing to nobody but a middle-aged whore and her daughter. Charlie let him in and took the money.
"It's a narrow saddle," she said. "Won't fit most horses."
"It's the idea of it, that's all," he said.
He lifted the saddle so that she could slip the noose off the horn; then he eased past her.
"Ruby's going to be mad when she finds out that you took the saddle," she said.
"You can come with me," he said. "We're related. Our great-great-great grandmothers were sisters. They started this house, only at first it was a house to do laundry."
He walked down the steps and she followed him to the station wagon. It was an old wagon, made in Japan, and the saddle took all the room in the back. Then he folded himself into the front seat.
"That means we couldn't be married," she said. "We're too closely related."
"You could let me save you," he said.
She was holding his car door open, but he wasn't trying to get away. He just looked ready to go.
"What's it mean to be a wife?" she said.
"To start, there's cooking and cleaning and raising babies."
"I do all that now, except for the babies. Say, if paying women is so bad, why'd you give me that hundred and fifty dollars?"
"You told me it was a holding fee."
She thought about that, and then she said, "Why can't you and I be married? It's not like we're real cousins."
"It wouldn't be right, not with me doing God's work."
"You're not Catholic. You're Pentecostal." She knew this because Pentecostal churches were the only churches in the area. "I think I like this setting-up-house idea, but if I were to be your wife, then who would marry us? I'm in a real bind now that you put this idea in my head. You're the only one who cares about me marrying."
"You could come with me and be saved."
"Nah. I think I'm going to meet someone soon."
"Just so you know, I'm going to be shutting this house down in a few days."
"Come a few days, I'll have myself a husband. I can feel it," she said.
When Ruby saw that the saddle was gone, she began to slap Charlie around the head. The slaps came down hard but not too hard because it had been a busy night and she was tired. Charlie thought about taking the slaps and keeping the money but then Ruby got a second wind and one of the blows really hurt, so she reached into her pocket and pulled out the cash. She had managed to keep some of it in her pocket, but a hundred and twenty of it went to her mom.
Ruby became dreamy when she saw the money. "Maybe we can go somewhere with this," she said. "Maybe I can take you to Missoula for a sody-pop." She was pushing her hair away from her face with the back of her hand. She didn't realize that the fingernail polish she had just put on was ruined. Her mother put the money in her bra and took it upstairs. It was more money in one roll than she had ever seen, too.
Steve came to town later in the week on a quiet day. It was a small town, just a row of buildings facing the railroad tracks and some farmland, then the mountains that rose up from the farmland. No one had seem him before, so it had to be his first time.
Charlie sat in the window of the laundromat and watched him cross the street. He parked his Jeep across the street, in front of the post office. She was going to steal some clothes, but the woman who had left her laundry didn't have anything that would fit Charlie. Or Ruby, but Ruby never wore anything that Charlie brought home.
Before he went into the post office, he stopped and looked around, as if searching the street for someone. It was a cold day, the snow had melted but the ground froze again. Winter would not let go. He wore a knitted hat that he pushed away from his eyes and he pulled at the wool scarf wrapped to his chin, revealing a red beard. She liked how he walked and how he looked over the town. She liked his old green Jeep that was touched up with slightly different green paint. It had no top and no doors. The windshield was folded down. He wasn't in the post office for very long.
Charlie was sitting in the passenger seat when he came out.
"What are you doing?" he said.
"I'm going home with you," said Charlie.
He got in and started the engine as if he might drive away with her. He reversed back onto the street and then stopped.
"You need to get out."
She would not. Instead, she smiled at him, as if that would propel him onto the road and away from here.
"You need to get out or I will take you out myself."
A car came to a stop behind them and the driver gave a polite tap on her horn. Charlie turned and waved her around. The car passed them, slowing. The driver looked hard at Steve.
"You won't scream," he said.
He got out and came around to her side, trying to lift her by the shoulders, but she gripped the seat fiercely and did not scream. He tried again by wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close to him. She screamed in his ear and laughed.
"What are you doing?" he asked her.
"What are you doing?"
He picked her up and she screamed again and tried to push out of his arms but he managed to lift her out and set her down on the side of the road. Nobody came when she screamed. Nobody looked out a window or stopped what they were doing to come to her rescue. She was going to get back in but he put his hand up, showing her his palm.
"Stop. I don't want you."
His scarf had fallen, or maybe he pulled it away, but she saw enough of his face to be convinced that this was the man she was going to marry.
She didn't see him again for about a month. In that time, she learned from one of Ruby's clients that he bought the Wilford place, an old homesteader's cabin about five miles out of town and up the mountain. It took her all of the morning to get there. He saw her as she was walking up his driveway and he came to meet her.
He said: "I'll report you to the state."
That stopped her. She had a brother that was reported to the state. It was not that long ago, about a year, that Ruby called the state on her own son. He was melting Ruby's silver in a coffee can. Not any of the silver that had been left behind on the display shelves, just Ruby's. She would never wear the jewelry that was left behind as payment because she might be seen by the wives who used to wear it. The state came, decided that Ruby had all but abandoned her son, and sent him away to a group home. She spent thirty days in jail for neglect and said it was worth it to get her son out of the house.
Steve flipped open his cellphone. She knew what those were.
"Can you hear me now?" she joked.
He dialed a number and put the phone to his ear.
"You got no signal out here," she said.
He put his finger to his other ear.
"Hello?" he said. "I'd like to report a runaway."
He held the phone away from his ear so that she could hear that he did have a signal and was talking to the state.
"It's for real," he mouthed.
"Yeah, she's at my house. About five miles outside of Flats... I don't know, up Vicks Creek Road."
"You don't know your own address?" she said.
Red-faced, he closed his phone.
"I'll take you home," he said.
"You called the state but they can't get me because you don't know your own address. Do you really live here?"
"Shut up and get in the Jeep."
"Don't talk to your wife that way."
"It will happen."
She did, and once they were on the country road, she liked how the vehicle rolled along and how the grass below her blurred. He said nothing as he drove to town. It was a warmer day than when she had first met him, but it was as if he were still wrapped in the hat and scarf. She could not read his intentions and she remained hopeful.
When they reached Charlie's house, Ruby came out to meet her wearing only a short red nightie with a robe that was open in the front. The fabric was see-through and lifted with the wind. Charlie could see that she wore no underwear and she was sure that Steve could see that, too. Until that day, she had not realized how young her mother looked from the waist down.
"There are velvet drapes, horsehair chairs, and tiffany lamps in my house," Charlie said. "Elk in the freezer, blankets in the cubbies, wood in a shed that's pretty close to the house. You could come live with us."
"Then I'm coming back to your place," she told him.
"I'm leaving for California tomorrow morning," he said.
"It's too early for the Santa Ana fires."
"Not this year."
They were still sitting in the Jeep, and Ruby was calling for Charlie to come to her. The ground between them was flooded, a big pool of water that reflected a break in the clouds above.
"You're making a fool of yourself," said Ruby.
"You really should live with me and my mom," Charlie said.
"No way," he said.
As she got out of the Jeep, he reached for her hand. He missed, taking only her smallest finger. Charlie, wanting to feel his warmth wrap around her, said: "She'll be dead soon." He drove away so fast that she had to jump to get out of the way. His tires spit up grass and mud as he tore onto the county road.
Ruby came forward and put her arm around Charlie. She was wearing bedroom slippers, which had a heel and were made of clear plastic with fake ostrich feathers over the toe. She needed Charlie's help getting back to the house. When she had Charlie's arm, she twisted the skin on the inside of her elbow and left a swelling bruise.
The following morning, Charlie's cousin returned. She watched him drive the old blue station wagon right up to the back door. It was filled with so many kids that their faces and hands were pressed against the windows. None of them got out until he did, and then they filed to the house with intention. Most had signs that read things like "The wages of sin are death" and "Salvation grants eternal life."
It was early; the sun was throwing a dull light. If there had been any fires, the sky would have been red, but it held no color. This, she knew, was what the summer held: days of protest, evenings of fading light, nights alone with her mother. She opened the door before he could knock.
"I just want to give you an opportunity to stop this," he said. "Either you or your mom or both of you could come with me, right now, and I'll take you away from this place."
"But you're a man of God."
"Here to save you."
"You said, 'we can't marry'."
"I think you misunderstand me." He held his Bible up. It was black and the cover had been bent open many times. It had a gold cross that was nearly worn away but "Holy Bible" was visible.
"I don't think I should," said Charlie.
"We brought tents," he said.
"What's your name, anyway?"
"That's a cool name."
"I'm going to close the door now."
When she did, he began to preach and the children began to wail.
Ruby came downstairs to the kitchen. Her hair was wild about her face and she was strangely pretty. Fragile.
"What is he doing?"
"Do you have a customer?"
There was a pause. The wind hit their house. The house stood against it, except for the window panes, which were old. They rattled.
"Jesus forgives, but God's wrath is eternal," shouted Zacharias from outside.
"God," said Ruby and she went back upstairs.
"Would you make the coffee?" she called from her room. "I need to relieve the pain in my head."
"We don't have any."
"Oh God again."
Charlie sat at the old table in the kitchen with her hands tucked under her knees. She thought that if she were a wife, she would have something to do right now.
"Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment," read Zacharias from outside. She was unsure if the wind carried his voice, or if it carried the wind. She thought that if she could, she would wash Jesus' feet with her hair. She would have to grow it out first, but she would do this for Him if He were still alive.
Ruby came back downstairs, dressed in a black dress that had dark stains, and high-heeled shoes. Her hair was pulled back so tightly that she looked fifteen years younger.
"Let's go see the fire crew off," she said.
By this she meant they would drive to Missoula and she would drink in the lounge and Charlie would sit and drink her pop and wave to the crew from the window. They had done it before. If there was a plane taking them away, it also meant that there would be a plane landing, unloading fresh potential.
They tried to leave by the front door to avoid Zacharias and the kids, but it had been so long since that door had been used that the lilac bush had grown over it. They pulled the door open to the surprise of starlings and pushed through the thick smell of it.
Ruby ran to the car and started it. At that sound, Zacharias led the children to the car and they had it surrounded before Charlie got there. She moved through them, and they crowded her as she climbed in. She understood how the word "whore" could be thrown at them but she and her mother remained like their house, solid with windows that rattled but held to their places. Ruby drove and the children parted for her.
It was eighty miles to the airport. When they were halfway there, they passed the van with the fire crew in it, and Charlie rolled her window down and waved to the men. Then she saw Steve, and she told Ruby that Steve was inside and to slow down. Ruby drove next to the van and Charlie waved and waved until Steve finally saw her. Everyone else waved back to her but Steve didn't. He sat with his arms crossed, looking straight ahead.
"I'll be at the lounge!" she shouted, even though she knew he could not hear her.
The driver of the van blared his horn, warning them of oncoming traffic. Ruby stepped on it and they got past the van without a collision.
"You're their favorite nuisance," said Ruby.
She tried to light a cigarette but was having a hard time steering the car and working the lighter. Charlie took the cigarette and lit it, sucked on it to get it going, and then she handed it back to her mother.
"It sure is hard to find a husband," said Charlie.
"Why doesn't he want to marry you?"
"Give him time," said Ruby.
Ruby pushed the car hard so that the engine whined and the temperature gauge lifted to red. Charlie thought that the car might fall to pieces in the middle of the road and there they would be, sitting in their seats, open to the world and the world open to them. But that didn't happen.
When they got to the airport, the car was barely stopped before her mother's heels were scraping across the asphalt. She moved so quickly she nearly missed the curb. Her heel lifted above the gutter and there was an instant where Charlie thought Ruby might go down. She was used to things nearly falling apart. The doors glided open for her under the magic eye.
"The right thing about airport lounges is that they open early," said Ruby.
She found a small table with chairs because Charlie was too young to sit at the bar. There was another lady in the lounge. She also wore a black dress and her hair was red and very pretty, curling in a way that showed just her earlobes and pearl earrings that hung like big teardrops. Sometimes Ruby wore pearl earrings but her hair never looked as good as that. Today she forgot to put anything in her ears and she looked plain compared to the woman at the bar.
"It's not my day to work," shrugged Ruby.
There was a drink in front of the lady, but she never drank from it.
The bartender brought a whiskey ditch for Ruby and a cola for Charlie. Ruby drank hers down, the ice clacking against her teeth. Charlie looked for the fire crew and it was not long before they walked past the lounge. When they reached the line for security, they shrugged off their backpacks, removed their shoes, and waited. They spotted Charlie and her mom, and there was some playful jostling, but Steve stopped it. Charlie counted the crew and said that there were fourteen.
"Just means that they don't expect anything to happen around here," said Ruby. "I love watching people leave."
"Do you like watching them come back?"
"Not as much."
An airplane landed, and after a while, people filed past the lounge. Most were laughing and talking, but some were by themselves. One came in and sat at the bar. He looked at Charlie and her mom and then at the lady in the black dress. He drank and watched them, but mostly he watched Charlie. When he caught her mother's eye, she shook her head, no. He got up and moved closer to the lady with the pearl earrings. Ruby slapped Charlie's leg. She told her, "If you want in this business, then go all in, but you can't be crossing your signals."
The man left with the lady. Someone else came into the lounge, but he just sat at the bar and drank his beer. By the time Charlie turned her attention back to the fire crew, they were already gone.
It was dark when they returned to the car. Ruby tried to put her key in the lock and then she sighed. "I can't do this," she said. "Come over here and unlock my door, will you?"
Charlie came over and took the keys.
"You were using the wrong one," she said and tried to give the keys back to her mother.
Ruby dropped them, and when she bent down to pick them up she fell forward. The straps on her heels were broken or maybe she had undone them and forgot to buckle them. She leaned on the car to right herself. The keys had fallen underneath.
"You should pick them up for me and drive," said Ruby. She stumbled around to the passenger side of the car.
Charlie got down on her knees to reach the keys and then opened the driver's door. She glared hard at her mother before getting in.
Ruby alternated between fumbling in her purse for her cigarettes and banging on the window, telling Charlie to hurry and unlock the passenger door. Charlie leaned over the passenger seat and pulled the peg lock up.
"Don't worry," said Ruby. "You can do it. Turn the headlights on."
"I don't have a license."
"You've seen me do it plenty of times." Then Ruby added, "Do you think they'll still be there?" referring to Zacharias and his crew.
"They said they brought tents," said Charlie.
"Oh, hell," said Ruby.
She passed out just before they left the lot. Charlie had to dig under the seat for two dollars in change. She was a dime short but the man at the gate waved her through. She drove in the dark wondering if anyone would notice that she should not be driving. No one seemed to care and the traffic thinned as they got further away from Missoula. Just after Evaro hill, she saw a bear.
"Look!" she said to her mother but Ruby only returned a snore.
"Look, look, look!" she said again.
Ruby woke and said, "God, child, what is wrong with you?" She curled with her face pressed against the window, and went back to sleep.
The bear loped in front of the car for just a little bit, then it ran down the ditch and into the woods, gone to the darkness.
He did not come back until October and there was a skiff of snow on the ground. The ground was not frozen, though, so Charlie knew that the snow would not last. The little cabin was unlocked but she had made a shelter from a fallen tree and a blue tarp. If she were going to be his wife, she needed to behave respectfully and wait to be invited in.
A light glowed from his window when he came back. She knew he had seen her and she waited patiently. One night it snowed about twelve inches, and he came to the little shelter she made in the rosebushes that were growing wild just beyond his yard.
"Okay," he said, "you can come into my house."
He smelled like wood smoke and pipe tobacco. She followed him to the little cabin and through the door. There was very little to look at. A bed along one wall. A table and a chair on the other. A basin of water. A tea kettle on a potbellied stove. A refrigerator that would have looked out of place if it wasn't so old. Everything smelled like old pine trees.
In the morning, she showed him her leather slingshot, the one her brother had taught her how to make. She slipped it over her finger and swung it in circles. Faster and faster it went until she released it and the stone, a projectile on the course she intended, found its mark. Squirrels were easy prey.
"I can take care of you," said Charlie.
Title graphic: "Fire-wired" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.