Hard Times

Mark opened his eyes and viewed the dark cloudy sky. As he sat up in the grass and leaned his sore back against the side of the wooden porch, his eyes focused on the large German Shepherd barking and growling at him. The shepherd’s tail was still and twitching.

Mark pushed his uncombed gray hair way from his eyes. “I’ve got just the thing for you, boy.” He said as he reached for his paper bag and pulled out a tin can containing coins.

He shook the can while shouting “No!” The shepherd pinned it’s ears back and lowered it’s head while still growling softly. Mark coughed up some phlegm and used his shirt sleeve to wipe his mouth.

“Who’s there?” A tall white haired man dressed in a dark gray sweater pushed the screen door open, came out on the porch and leaned over the rail. He glared at Mark. “What the hell are you doin’ here?” Then under his breath, “Lazy bum!”

“Just taking a nap is all.” Mark responded.

“Get out of here or I’ll call the cops.” The angry man said.

Mark rose to his feet and brushed the dirt off his brown pants. He could feel the grass blades through the holes in his old soiled white sneakers.

The old man called the dog. “Here Buddy. Come here.”

The dog moved slowly toward the porch, not letting Mark out of it’s view. Mark stayed perfectly still while the old man let the dog inside the house. Then the old man turned and said, “You! Get out of here and don’t come back.”

Mark picked up his coat and brushed it off.

“What are you waitin’ for?” The old man yelled, ” Move!”

Mark limped toward the road. The road was lined with split-level ranch houses and the gutters were lined with garbage cans. Mark’s eyes quickly scanned the threatening sky. He realized that rain was coming and he’d better find a place to wait out the showers. The sound of footsteps caught his attention. Two young men approached him from behind and threw him to the ground. They cursed him and picked up his bag. One man leaned over and searched Mark’s pocket. The other man was holding a long piece of wood. After being satisfied that Mark had no money, they walked away, examining the contents of the bag and spreading them all over all the road. Finally they tossed the empty bag.

After the two men disappeared around the nearest corner, Mark proceeded to pick up his stuff and toss them back in the bag. He was happy they did not remove his shoes.

Then the rain started. As the sprinkle turned into a hard down pour, he hid the bag under his coat to protect it from the rain.

The distant sound of fire engines reminded him of his experience two nights ago, While he and his wife were sleeping, electrical arcing began inside the bathroom ceiling fixture. The wires slowly got hot enough to melt the insulation. Then the utility box holding the light fixture got hot. Soon the joist that the box was connected to became scorched. The fire alarm did not go off because the battery was dead. The glowing joist smoldered without an open flame. Soon the attic floor was smoldering. Nobody could be sure how long it took for the plywood under the roof shingles to start smoldering. The bathroom door was not open. The bathroom window began expanding like a balloon. The window burst, waking Mark up. The smoke seeped out from under the bathroom door, slowly filling all rooms with the smell of burnt wood and melting wire insulation. Mark shook his wife yelling, “Martha, wake up!” Startled, she opened her eyes. Now, they were both coughing.

Inside the walls the wires leading from the fixture to the fuse box in the cellar were hot. The insulation started melting in the bx cable. The wood the cable was stapled to began to scorch. In the cellar the service box was getting hot.

Mark directed his wife to get down on the floor and crawl toward the front door. He grabbed the pillows and did the same. He pulled the pillow cases off the pillows and told her to cover her nose and mouth with a pillow case. He felt the bedroom door. It was not hot. After opening the bedroom door, they tried to crawl down the stairway. They had to go feet first, keeping their heads close to the stairs. The smoke was getting thicker. She crawled ahead of Mark and out of his view. He assumed she was crawling toward the front door. He heard coughing. He yelled her name, but could not see her. He heard no response. He continued yelling her name while crawling toward the front door. He couldn’t see anything because of the smoke. He got up on his knees to open the door, hoping the smoke would clear a bit so he could see his wife. But before he opened it, he tried to peer through the smoke one last time.

“Martha!” He yelled. He heard more coughing. She was close. He crawled alongside the wall and stumbled upon her. He dragged her to the door. He opened the door and the air rushed in. The bedroom and bathroom shared the same wall. A small hole in the wall allowed the flames to shoot out.

Mark pulled his unconscious wife out onto the front porch. He heard the sirens in the distance. A crowd was gathering across the street and watching the flames shoot out of the roof and the bedroom window.

The sound of a honking horn brought Mark back to the present. He had been wandering the streets ever since he was released from the hospital. The sequence of events during the fire kept playing in his mind.

He could still hear the doctor’s solemn voice, “I’m very sorry, Mr Landry. We did everything we could for your wife. I’m so sorry. She didn’t make it.”

“Was this my fault?” He silently asked himself, “Damn! I wish I could remember.”

Searching for some peace, his mind wandered back to their wedding day. He waited while she walked up the aisle in the beautiful white gown and her father by her side. He would never forget her radiant smile as she joined him and they turned to face the priest. They were brilliantly happy that day. They had a great time at the wedding and were giggling over silly jokes on their way to the train station. Stark and unwelcome reality set in. She was gone.

Mark approached the Pizza shop and entered. His friend, Jim, greeted him. Mark said he would be right back. Mark entered the rest room and took off one sneaker and sock. He reached into one sock and removed a twenty dollar bill. He put his sock and sneaker back on and came out of the rest room.

“Hi Jim, I figured I’d find you here,” Mark said to his friend, “Would you mind if I join you?”

“Hell no! Have a seat. Its good to see you” Jim was dressed in suede shoes, denim pants and a blue pull over shirt. “Your whole family has been worried sick about you. Your sister called the hospital and they said you were released but they couldn’t find you. For Petes sake, are you okay? You look like you could use a good shower and a bed!”

“I needed some time alone.” Mark smoothed his hair back again with his hand, embarrassed “I suppose I do. Sorry.”

“Did you make any funeral arrangements?”

Mark hesitated, thinking to himself “Oh my God! How could I forget that? Martha, forgive me.” Then he said aloud, “Uh… No, not yet.”

“Where are you staying?”

“To tell the truth, I’ve been wandering the streets. But don’t tell my sister that. She has enough to worry about without knowing that.”

“You have my word. I won’t tell her. But you’d better call her. You can call from my place.”

The waitress came and Mark told her he was not ready to order yet.

“Thanks. I will.” He paused, “But I need to ask you a question.” He pulled his bag from under his coat and placed it on the table. He sat down and rested his head in his hands. “I can’t remember and it’s been haunting me. Remember a few months ago we replaced a light fixture?”

“Yes, I do. Why?”

“Because the fire marshal said the fire was started by an electrical problem. Jim, I need to know. I can’t remember much before the fire. And this question has been haunting me ever since the fire. Which light fixture did we replace? I know two needed replacing.”

“Sure I remember. We replaced the one in the kitchen. You didn’t have the right size fixture for the one in the bathroom. Remember?”

Mark’s face lit up, “Are you sure?”

“Of course I am. We had to move the table. I nearly tripped on the step stool”

Mark breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God!” He smiled and signaled the waitress, “I’m ready to order now.”

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