Fire and Wanda Chapter 2 Scene 2


I put in for vacation leave that same day, soon as I got back to the office. I’d be leaving for Chicago in a month. I decided against my first inclination to call Corinne back, but there was somebody I would need to call right away, unless I felt like taking my chances at staying in some No Tell Motel on Chicago’s South Side. I’d spent enough time in those things to know that wasn’t the way to go. It wasn’t like I didn’t still have some friends there, but I was guessing the few that were still around weren’t exactly in the kind of shape to be able to put me up.

Her name was Mrs. Spiller. My ‘other’ mother. I could never forget the day I showed up curled into myself on the floor in front of her second floor apartment trying to catch a nap waiting for her to return. I didn’t have anyplace else to go for a number of reasons, and the weather outside was something like minus 20 degrees and howling. I’d caught two buses and taken an ‘el’ train to get there, and I was freezing. I thought for sure she’d be there, which was why I hadn’t even bothered calling first. She was always there.

And as it turned out, she was there that time too. But I think she’d been taking a nap when I knocked on the door and that meant she couldn’t hear me. So there I was, asleep on the floor in the hallway, when she opens her door on her way to work. She worked nights as a cleaning woman at the university downtown, and her knees had long since given up trying to warn her that they couldn’t hold out much longer. Truth of the matter was she didn’t need to be doing anything that required much physical exertion of any kind, but then the other truth of the matter was that she seriously needed to quit smoking those unfiltered Pall Malls. For Mrs. Spiller, how a person lived life was that person’s business, so long as nobody else was getting hurt by it. The fact that somebody might be hurt if she ever died of lung cancer or whatever else might result wasn’t a concept she could wrap her mind around. To her that kind of logic was foolish, especially coming from somebody like me who defended his Salem Lights because they had filters and I was young and in good shape.

So when I looked up and saw her standing there, looking down at me with her head cocked to one side, I saw all the worry in the world looking down at me through those soft dark eyes, black scarf wrapped tight around her head. My first thought was how long had she been standing there. My second thought was damn did I ever feel embarrassed.

I tried to sit up quick, to make it look like I’d just sat down there right before she’d opened the door, but then that’s the kind of dumb thinking you do right after you get jolted awake into a complicated situation. Your brain tries its best to cover for you, to send the right signals to the right stations to get you on top of things, but the wires are still crossed and the freeways inside your mind are still clogged and shrouded in fog. No use even trying.

“Scared me,” I said.

“Come again, baby? You sayin’ I scared you? That what you just said?”

“Thought you were gone. Waitin’ for you. If I’d known you were inside I would\a kept knockin’ harder. This floor’s kinda hard.”

“It’s a floor.”

By now I was standing up, my hands shoved deep into my pockets. I smiled.


“Um-hm. So how long you been down there? You have any idea what might coulda happened to you out here?”

“Neighbors know me, though. Right?”

“Baby please don’t act stupid with me. I know you goin’ through some things, but that ain’t got to make you act stupid. You know full well everybody walkin’ around in these halls ain’t my neighbors. You know what side of town this is, and you been comin’ ‘round here long enough to know what be goin’ on.”

“Yes, m’am. I do. Yes m’am.”

She stared at me a few moments longer, then reached out and stroked the side of my face. Her hands and fingers looked much rougher than they felt. Years of scrubbing and cleaning had carved a working woman’s legacy into those hands that could never be smoothed away. She shook her head and chuckled, then nodded her head inside toward the living room.

“I got to get to work. You go on in there. Barry say he gonna be home soon. Maybe the two a y’all can help each other relax y’all selves. He say he got something goin’ on too. I ain’t ask what. Just like I ain’t ask what with you. Ask that later when I get home. You be here when…?”

“Yes m’am. I’ll be here.”

“All right then. Tell you what, why don’t you walk an old woman to the bus stop and I’ll give you the keys so’s you can let yourself back in once I’m gone. How that sound?”

“Sounds fine.”

“All right then. C’mon.”

The wind was blowing so hard the entryway door was rattling and shaking like somebody was trying to break in. Once we both got down to the landing, Mrs. Spiller stopped and wrapped her scarf tight around her face, then buttoned her well-worn wool coat all the way up. She looked over at me, then glanced down to where my rather thin blue jacket ended at my waist, then back up. I had on a couple of sweaters underneath.

“Baby, you came all the way over here in just that?”

I smiled, then shrugged.

“Hopin’ to get this new job soon. Now that Harold Washington’s mayor maybe I can get myself a job in the City doing something. A friend told me some things are opening up. Maybe then I can afford to get me a new coat. You know. Anyway, shouldn’t we be heading on out there so you don’t miss your bus?”

“Can see the bus comin’ from right here where I’m at. That’s one of the few good things ‘bout livin’ in this place. It’s close to the bus so I ain’t gotta be standin’ out there waitin’ in bad weather – or with them little boy knuckleheads that’s always bouncin’ around here.”

“But I thought you just said you wanted me to walk you to…”

“Never mind what I just said. Right here be just fine.”

“Whatever you say. You’re the boss.”

“Smartest thing you’ve said all night.”

Ten minutes later she was gone, and I was back sleep on the couch in the front room. Barry never did make it home that night.



“Wait a doggoned minute here. You comin’ back? Baby, I thought you said things was goin’ so good for you down there, workin’ on that newspaper and everything. Writing those stories. You know I still keep my copies of every one you sent here. Show ‘em to everybody that remembers you. Some of ‘em jealous just don’t wanna say, you know how some of these niggers be, but I do believe you got some people here are real proud of what you’ve done. You remember LaRonda, don’t you? Cute little fast-tailed thing used to be switchin’ all over the place in those tight little green shorts always wanted to cook you something?”

“Wait a minute…you’re talking about that little girl, the one…she was 16 right? But looked 25? Almost got me in trouble that one time?”

I could hear her laughing over the phone, and I was missing her already. I was sitting in the cramped space of my apartment living room looking through the slide doors that let out onto the porch and the surrounding dusk. Mrs. Spiller had long since quit her job and spent most of her time at home watching television or going out occasionally to visit her sister who lived on the other side of town. Barry told me she probably didn’t have that much time left, although you never would have guessed it by the cheerful, bell-like sound of her voice.

“Yeah boy. That be the one. Well, now she’s 26 and looks damned near 50. Girl was livin’ so fast she ran right past all her good years. Seems like that’s what these children be doin’ these days. Anyway, she asked about you just the other day. Crazy as she is, I do believe that girl really did care about you some.”

“Think so? Many men as she had running in and outta there how could anyone ever tell?”

“Be nice, Alton. That girl ain’t never did a thing to you ‘cept what the two of you agreed on. You lucky you ain’t caught nothin’.’”

“I always wore myself a cap down there, Mrs. Spiller. Just like you said I should. See? I was paying attention.”

“Mm-hmm. OK. Well, enough of that. I’ll be sure to tell her you said hello and that you was thinkin’ ‘bout her. That’ll make her feel good, even if it ain’t the truth. Poor girl needs to feel good about something. So now what is it you gotta come down here for? Some woman left you a package? That don’t make no sense to me. Somethin’ wrong with the U.S. Mail?”

“That’s what I said, Mrs. Spiller, but her daughter made it sound like I had to come down and get this thing myself because that’s the way her mother wanted it. I dunno. I think she said there was a note with it or something.”

“A note? This crazy woman gonna leave you a note to come pick up a box she left for you, then she goes and kills herself? Sheeeeit. I’m sorry, baby, but that’s just about the craziest thing I ever heard. Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t that I don’t wanna see you. I know Barry told you I ain’t doin’ quite so good these days, but I think comin’ down here for somethin’ like that ain’t no good idea. Just don’t smell right. Who is this woman, anyway?”

“Wanda, Mrs. Spiller. You remember me talking about Wanda, right? The one I used to work with in the Burn Center over at the University of Chicago Hospital? The nurse used to let me borrow her car to go to gigs and stuff?”

“You talkin’ ‘bout that hooker girl.”

“That’s her past, Mrs. Spiller. That’s her past. She went into being a nurse just to get away from all that. Remember I told you about that too? She was tryin…”
“OK, OK. I’m sorry. I know you cared about the woman. How could I not know, much as you ran off at the mouth cryin’ ‘bout how heartsick you was.”
“I wasn’t that bad.”

“You didn’t hear yourself. If you did you woulda made yourself sick. Wish I had me one of them…what you call ‘em? Videotapes. Yessir. Wish I had me one of them so you could see just how…”
“I need to stay with you when I come down, Mrs. Spiller. I don’t know anybody else I can ask.”

We shared a silence for a good long moment before I heard her sigh loudly on the other end of the phone. Then she started to grunt as the sound of bed sheets rustled in the background.

“You know you ain’t never had to ask.”

“I know. But still. Anyway, I’ll be there in a few weeks. I’ll call you a few days before I’m on my way just to let you know.”

“That’ll be fine, baby. That’ll be fine. I hope you know I’m just so proud of you, even if you ain’t mine by blood. And I just don’t wanna see you get all tangled back up in that mess you was in before you left. You can understand that, can’t you?”

I nodded my head.

“Yes m’am. I certainly can.”

I was still staring out into the incoming darkness, but I wasn’t paying it much attention. What I saw much more clearly was a steady running clip of Chicago memories that had started to bubble up from my subconscious like raw sewer water. No matter how hard I tried to keep them in check and under lockdown, it seemed like they were always finding that stray crack somewhere and then punching through like Jack Johnson.

“Yes, m’am. I certainly can…”




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