“Ashes, Ashes”

“Ashes, Ashes,” a short story by alumna Lynette D’Amico (fiction, ’13), appears in the spring 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review.

[The city] was burning with the slow implacable fires of human desperation.—Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Her mother used to walk the subdivision in the cool early mornings of summer, before the heat and humidity descended and trapped everybody in air-conditioned exile. She stopped walking mornings because of Dave Fletcher and O.J. Simpson. Dave was a county police officer who lived across the street from the mother. His wife left him in April, driving away from their house in Three Creeks. The summer of O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial for murder, as her mother walked in and out of the neighborhood cul-de-sacs, she saw Dave Fletcher in his dark blue police uniform walking too. Dave didn’t walk on the sidewalks or even in the street. Dave walked between peoples’ houses, across their lawns, through the common ground. At first, her mother said, she thought he was patrolling the subdivision, looking out for his neighbors.

This much of the story seemed reasonable to the daughter. But you never knew. She didn’t live there anymore, and the mother was prone to exaggeration, depression, and a dependence on cleaning products and box blush wines. So was the daughter. About the same things and different things too. They talked on the phone almost every day and the daughter made the ten hour drive to visit her mother once a month or as often as she could. She had Fridays off and that was her driving day. She’d leave in the morning and get to her mother’s house in time for dinner. No matter what time it was when she got there, her mother would be looking out the dining room window. No matter how long she planned to stay, the first thing her mother always said was, “Our time is so short.”

They would eat dinner together, which always included something the daughter loved to eat when she was a child—mashed potatoes, spaghetti, angel food cake. This was the best part of their time together. She was road drunk, ready to sit at the mother’s table, overfill her plate, and eat and drink too much. “Your hair,” the mother said at the stove. “I like it longer. A woman’s hair is her crown of glory.” The next day was Saturday, and then Sunday, the daughter would be back in her car, driving the ten hours back to her own home.

When the daughter visited her mother in the city where she had grown up, she lost all memory of any other life, of her grown-up life with her husband in the new housing development in a star city. What did the star mean? That’s what it said on the city sign: “A Star City.” Home to the stars? A footnote in the universe? Better than a nobody city of non-stars, nonentities, nobody glowing bright, except the light of thousands of lit cigarettes. She had left the mother’s city before anything had ever happened, before failed jobs and failed marriages and thousands of cigarettes smoked. But when she returned it was as though she had never been away, as though she had always lived in the city with her mother without interruption, world without end.

Her mother still lived in the same modest three-bedroom ranch home where she had lived for the past thirty years. The mortgage was paid off, the walls were still the same cream color, the front yard yews trimmed to the same boxy shape year after year.

Three Creeks was one of the first new housing developments built thirty years ago in an area of truck farms and one-hundred-year-old redbrick houses on small acreage. There was one creek that wound through the common ground, not three. It was called Coldwater Creek. There was no creek named Three Creeks. The subdivision dead-ended at a farmer’s field. One hundred twenty houses were laid out on cul-de-sacs, built around a common-ground area that bordered Paddock Country Club and Golf Course.

As a kid on sticky summer nights, while the neighborhood’s air conditioners throbbed and hummed, she’d sneak out through the window in the bedroom the mother used as an auxiliary closet, the window that was lower to the ground than the one in her old bedroom. She carried a flashlight, a notepad and pencil, cigarettes stolen from her mother, and her father’s handgun that she had found in her mother’s lingerie drawer. She left the bullets tied in the toe of a nylon knee-high. Even an unloaded gun was a weapon, a force and shield that made her older, taller, dangerous. She pushed the window open, unhooked the screen, and landed like a secret agent in the flower bed below. At the end of the street were the new houses under construction. They were in different stages: there were the model homes, the wood-framed houses, the newly excavated basements. If the basement had been poured, she walked down the temporary wood-form steps and shined her flashlight around the cement box. There was always a lot of trash—soda cans, food wrappers, wood scraps, sometimes an empty pint bottle, a trowel layered with dried mortar. She sat on a step and smoked a cigarette, carefully stashing the butt in one of the cement blocks. Then she wrote a note to the house’s future resident, which she rolled up like a cigarette and hid under a floor joist. She believed in all the possibilities the new house promised. In the muscular, blond two-by-fours, the arterial web of electrical wires, and the stolid reassurance of copper piping was the beginning of new life. No matter how much trash littered the site during construction, by the time the interior doors were hung and the sod was laid, the house would be nearly perfect, clean and new. At least until the people moved in.

The prime lots backed up to the common ground on streets with tree names such as Sycamore, Linden, Maple. These must have been the names of trees that were cut down to build the development. The trees planted in the parkway were blackjack oaks—dirty trees, her mother called them. They littered the sidewalks with yellow catkins in spring that looked like shaggy worms and tough brown leaves and acorns that slid under your shoes like ball bearings in fall. When she visited her mother, she noticed the roots of the older oaks buckling sidewalks and pushing through the grass.

The last time the daughter visited her mother, the mother counted down the houses gone black. The Russos got divorced after Liza, their youngest, graduated from high school, and they sold during Reagan’s second term to blacks. The LaBarbaras were gone even before that. They moved out and up to Country Life Acres, which had an average per capita income of almost $90,000. Their split-level four-bedroom was sold to a black couple with twin Airedales. That nice young couple with the two boys on the corner—they left their house for sale and vacant—they didn’t want to wait anymore. They tried to hold out for a white buyer, but after a year of double house payments, they let it go to blacks.

Every time a For Sale sign appeared in a neighbor’s yard, the mother watched anxiously behind her sheer kitchen curtains. If the Realtor was black, the house will go black, she predicted. With a white Realtor there was a better chance the house will be sold to whites….

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