Hershey Remembers The Fire
Robert C. Taylor
I’m not sure, exactly, but I believe I was twelve when we moved across the alley to the big house on South Third. It had been Momma’s dream for a long time to live in that big white house with the wrap-around porch. She hated the house we moved from, on South Second, hated it with a passion. I didn’t like it either, for several reasons, one being that the house had an odor about it, like stagnant water. It had tiny rooms, especially mine, which also doubled as the laundry room. Can you imagine, a girl sleeping in the room where her momma washed clothes? But you want to know what I hated most about that house? The spiders and scorpions! My God, the entire property seemed to be infested with the horrible creatures.
Momma and I were walking home from the grocery store when we passed the big house and saw the For Rent sign in the yard. I swear I had never seen Momma so excited. “Hershey’ she said, “we are moving into this house, but I’ll need your help convincing your daddy to make the move.”
Daddy was dead-set against the move, at first, claiming we couldn’t afford the rent. But Momma and I kept bugging him until he finally gave in and told us to start packing. I was so happy. I would have my own room, a large room, located nowhere near the laundry room, with a door opening onto the carport. I could sneak out at night without my parents ever knowing a thing about it. I could have friends over and not feel embarrassed about the odor of stagnant water, and I didn’t have to explain why my mom washed clothes in my bedroom.
So we moved into the big white house. Momma loved it as much, or maybe even more, than she thought she would. She told us this over and over. But Daddy never allowed her to be totally happy, as he held the threat over her head of moving back into the other house. “Glenda,” he would say at the breakfast table, “I don’t know how much longer I can afford this place. We might have to move back across the alley if we get any further behind on the bills.” This would make Momma cry, and call Daddy some choice names I see no reason to repeat here.
I never understood why Daddy treated Momma the way he did. I mean, I truly believe it upset him to see her happy. He went out of his way to come up with things to worry her. Momma explained to him that no child my age should have to sleep in the laundry room.
I remember the night Momma and I were at church, Momma And I, and Barry, one of Daddy‘s friends, came in. He walked right down the aisle to our pew, with the minister in mid-sermon, and informed us that our house was on fire. We had ridden to church with Rita, a friend of Momma‘s, so Momma yelled out in a loud voice, “Rita, our house is ablaze!” So there we went, heading down Columbus Street toward South Third, Rita driving like a house afire, no pun intended, and Momma crying and saying horrible things like, “Oh, Hershey, our house is burning down, and the dogs are in there, and your daddy!”
Momma swore until the day she died that she didn’t mention them in that order, the dogs and then Daddy, but she did. I remember it like it happened yesterday. But anyway, we were speeding along Columbus Street, and at the same moment I heard the wailing of fire engines, a thought crossed my mind. Daddy’s friend, Barry, had not visited or heard from us since we moved into the big white house. He could not have known we had moved. “Momma,” I said, “our house isn’t on fire.”
“What are you talking about?” she screamed. “Barry saw it burning, and I hear the fire engines now, and smell the smoke!”
“Momma,” I explained, “Barry doesn’t know we moved! It’s not our house that’s on fire, it’s our old house.” And sure enough, turning the corner onto South Third, we saw the flames from across the alley, soaring high into the night sky. And there was Daddy, in the back yard with the water hose, spraying down our roof, so the sparks wouldn’t set our house ablaze.
The next morning, during breakfast, we heard a knock at the door. “Come in,” Momma yelled, and in walked Uncle Frank, Momma’s brother. Frank didn’t have a home back then. He would travel around the country, hopping freight trains and bumming rides, and on occasion stop off at our place and spend an undetermined amount of time.
Daddy invited Frank to take a seat and join us for breakfast. “There’s plenty food and coffee left,” he said, “so help yourself.”
Frank informed us that he had arrived in town by freight train earlier that same morning, and hitched a ride the rest of the way to our house. Momma and Daddy had been discussing something, I don’t remember what, when Frank arrived, so they continued their discussion, and were in the middle of it when Frank interrupted. “That was a real doozie of a fire last night, huh?” he said. “That house went up like it was made of dried kindling.”
Momma and I looked at each other, and it was obvious we were thinking the same thing. If he had gotten into town this morning, how did he witness the fire last night? Well, nobody said anything about the discrepancy in his statement. That night, lying in bed, in the bedroom I loved so much, the one nowhere near the laundry room, I recalled a conversation I overheard between Momma and Frank the last time he came to visit. It was a couple of weeks after we had moved into the big house. “Frank, I won’t move back across the alley,” she said. “Before I’d move back there, I’d burn that house to the ground, to the ground!” I dozed off to sleep with a picture in my mind, of Uncle Frank, slinking across the alley in the dark, with a gas can in his hand. And I remember wondering how many spiders and scorpions had perished in the fire, not that I cared.