Charlotte Mandel

 
 

FIRE ESCAPE

 

The doorbell ringing must have sent my mind into the past. I opened my mouth to call, “Kristin, answer the door,” but woke, instead, angry with myself for falling asleep in front of the TV. It scares me to wake up at two in the morning with an ache in the back of my neck and gangsters’ machine guns where Roseanne had just been talking. And this time I’d dozed off in broad daylight, not long after breakfast.

The bell rang a couple more times.  I couldn’t see anyone at the peephole but then I heard a girl’s voice. Nowadays, even ten year olds can’t be trusted, but I opened the door just a sliver, keeping the chain on. It was the Haitian young bride from upstairs—actually, she was at least eight months pregnant, but I called her “the bride” because the husband hadn’t brought her into the apartment until the week before. And I figured Haitian because they were black-skinned and had an accent that sounded like French.

“Please, can I take your window?”

Even with the belly, she couldn’t be more than ninety pounds. An ebony dancing doll with a neat cap of iron-wool hair, in a yellow sundress and rubber thong sandals.  She looked like a child carrying a beach ball under her dress for the fun of it.

“What window?”

“I was to go down to the wash machine, but the door, it lock behind me, and I have a kettle boiling on the fire. Please, can I take your window? To go through, for the fire escape?” The couple had Thorsen’s old apartment, identical to mine, one floor above.

To climb out my living room window and up the fire escape would be the last thing I’d try in this world—not just because I’ve let myself get so big. I don’t tell my children, but I’ve become terrified of heights. Thirty-five years ago, I was so proud of that view of the Statue of Liberty I would sit out on the third floor window sills every once a week to scrub the outsides. But now the panes are smeared over with city dirt and grime. After it snows or rains, the water part dries up and acid soot sticks to the glass. You’d think my children would notice the change, but when Eric or Kristin visit me, they stay a half hour, maybe, and never even look past the kitchen or the foyer. I still keep the house nice—what else have I got to do? It’s the stairs that are hard—my knees can’t go up and down those three flights. Kristin comes once a week with groceries and to empty junk mail from the letterbox, and Eric comes once a month to cash my check and pay the landlord—that is, he pays the super. The landlord himself used to live on the first floor, but that was twenty years ago. My children are good, I can’t complain. Why should either one of them think about windows?

The girl followed her own swollen belly through the foyer to the living room. An older woman might remark on my crocheted lampshades. Her head barely reached my collarbone, and even with her thighs spread like a toddler to balance her front belly, she moved in fast hops as though the rubber thongs were on springs. Her ears lay small and close to her head like a doll’s, with yellow flower earrings dangling a pair of dice—probably made on her native island.

Immigrants–what did they know about what they were coming into?  Like a black and yellow chick, that girl, with her bird legs and little round head. The husband moved in alone three months ago when Thorsen’s children finally took him off to the nursing home. Wouldn’t the landlord wish me to go, too, so he could raise the rent one hundred per cent? His son came last month to nag me:  “What do you need two bedrooms for, and such a large kitchen to cook for just one person?” For Thorsen, I would add a couple of pieces of fruit or a half-pound of haddock to the list for Kristin to get from Henry’s fish store. Kristin comes every Saturday first thing in the morning, her day off from the youth center, though sometimes they need her to do emergency counseling. After Henry died, his wife sold the fish business to a cousin that wears his hair in a pony tail, and they carry stuff I wouldn’t go near like cockles and sea urchin. For Thorsen, I’d cook a pan of apple cakes, or a fish loaf he could either heat up or enjoy cold—I could manage the one flight of stairs—to give him a nice taste, and we had old times to talk about. He used to be a sailor—it was the view of the harbor that attracted him to move in here. He taught my children how to recognize the different national flags on the ships.

Oh yes, the Norskers are dying out of the building, and the people coming in are every color of the rainbow. In some of these apartments they pack in what they call “cousins”—roomers, really, but anyone from the homeland qualifies as a cousin. The first one is legally entitled to sign the lease, and the rest float in and out, with or without a green card. From the window on the court, you can hear Spanish, Oriental and every language in between. Eskimo, too. The only immigrants who can talk to each other are the kids who pick up English from TV and the day care centers. I can’t even remember having to learn English. From the minute my sisters and I were off the boat, we began teaching our parents. They were so proud of our gold stars in school.  Thorsen’s boys weren’t so good in school as his girls.

After Thorsen, the apartment upstairs stayed just as quiet with the “Frenchman” who had moved in alone. With his accent and elegant way of dressing, he seemed really French. The super told Kristin he sold and repaired typewriters. After he brought his “bride” I sometimes heard little mouse sort of footsteps.

The latch on my fire escape window wouldn’t budge—but that pregnant girl worked her thin fingers like pliers. A thick gold wedding band gleamed on her left hand. In a minute, she had the window pushed all the way to the top and was over the sill. I wanted to pull her back in when the scabby iron railing rattled–there are bound to be loose bricks in the outside wall. In the old days, the fire escape was solid, with a whole zigzag balcony of people sitting out in nice weather. My husband, Nils, would set up a playhouse made of blankets, and Eric and Kristin played there all summer with their friends.

But the girl perched her toes on the iron rungs just like a bird, and began climbing the air, leaning backwards to give her belly enough room. “Stop!” I wanted to yell, but didn’t dare frighten her into a false step.

Up she went, hands fluttering on the banister rod. I kept my eyes fixed on the yellow square of her back bouncing up the shaky narrow rungs as if my watching could hold her like a safety belt. When she touched the landing of her own floor, I wedged one hand to the underside of the sill, propped the other high on the frame, and stretched my neck to see above. A sky opened in my stomach but I saw her hand touch the window. Thankful, I fell back onto the chair, gasping, waiting for the room rushing around me in circles to slow down and come back to stay. Then I lifted myself up from the chair and pushed the bottom window down.

Exhausted, I sank into the couch pillows. “All’s well that ends well,” I told the TV. Blanche on “The Heavenly Light” was about to make a phone call, to Kenneth, I figured, from the nervous way she was puffing her cigarette. She’d just found out she was pregnant—she had better stop smoking.

It must have taken a while for the tapping sounds to penetrate—there was a yellow bundle crouched on the fire escape outside my window. The girl was tapping and calling—I couldn’t hear but saw her mouth opening and closing. My window was really a shame—I could hardly see her anxious face through the dirty glass. As if she could read my thoughts, she took a hankie from her pocket and rubbed a round space clear.

I turned off the TV but still couldn’t hear what she was saying. “Is your window locked?”I hollered. She opened her mouth again but I couldn’t understand any words. Her hands flew around her bulging front and up to cover her ears in a gesture of desperation.

I put my shoes on, laced them for support, and went to the window. Through the cleared space, I could see the Statue of Liberty, reconstructed for her 100th birthday, in full glory on her rock. When I’d arrived on the boat with my parents, she had shone for me, tall and golden, like the Norse goddess Freya, the mother of music, spring and flowers. I stood stock still, remembering.

The girl was trying to swab more dirt away and knocking her wedding ring on the glass to wake me up. “I’m coming,” I shouted. But I could not budge the window, not even with two hands. She tried to help from outside and began jumping up and down. “Don’t do that,” I yelled, “I’ll call Emergency.” I heard her wail.

Kristin has pasted a neat list of emergency numbers next to the phone in the kitchen. I remembered she’d left a kettle boiling—how long had it been—a fire could be starting right over my head. When my sister-in-law Astrid forgot the coffee pot on the burner, an explosion covered her kitchen walls with burnt plastic and the smell by itself nearly poisoned the whole family. I dialed Fire Department as quickly as I could, though one of my fingers was sore where I’d torn a shred of skin on the latch. The girl was tapping louder–in another second, the glass would crack. The man on the phone didn’t understand what I was talking about, but finally I just yelled “Fire Emergency!” and gave my address and apartment number. Meanwhile, I went back to her with a dishrag and a screwdriver to try to get a grip on the window frame.

The girl was gone! But then I saw she was sitting down, arms around her belly, rocking from side to side. She was having a contraction, for sure. Where was the husband? I didn’t know where he worked, or even his name. Kristin had told me the name on the letterbox but she herself didn’t know how to pronounce it. It was written with an apostrophe and two hyphens.

I saw the girl jump up and then heard the sirens. They had spotted her yellow dress and were raising the high ladders while I went on pushing at the window. My doorbell rang again—twice in one day!—and two firemen in helmets boots slickers butted their way in, hatchets ready to smash. “No! Just open the window!” I spread my whole self in front of the glass, a human shield.

In the fireman’s hands, the window slid up like butter, but the girl had gone up the iron stairs again, refusing to let them come near her. I heard her carrying on in her own language—but firemen are trained for this, and in spite of her protesting and kicking, they were bringing her down the fire escape. Suddenly, she cried out, and I knew she was having another contraction. They slid her through into my living room.

“She has a kettle boiling—in the apartment above mine!”

One of the firemen—he looked even younger than the girl—was out of my window again like a jumping jack. The girl howled. I saw two of her back teeth were gold. She stopped and crouched on my rug, head against the sofa.

“Where’s your husband? Do you have a doctor? The firemen can take you to the hospital.”

“No, no hospital, no!” She caught her breath, sweat on her oval face. “Please, may I take your telephone?”

She dialed a number, and speaking to someone in her language, burst into sobs, nodded a couple of times and hung up. “Please, go away,” she said to the firemen, “my husband comes.  He has the key, everything, please go away.”

I heard footsteps trampling over our heads—the young fireman had broken through her window to get at the stove. A few minutes later, he was climbing back into my living room. “Just in time,” he said, “the water was all boiled off. Are you all right, miss?” The girl shook him loose with a jab of her elbow.

To the next doorbell ring, I opened wide, expecting the husband, but it was the super, Nicolaso, with a strange man. The man held a camera on his shoulder, big as a machine gun. “He’s from the TV, Mrs. Norlund, there’s a big crowd in the street—-everybody running out of the building.  Where is your fire?” The poor girl screamed and buried her face in my pink lace sofa pillow so as not to be photographed. Those people land on you like vultures for what they call news. They listen to police and fire calls and right away they’re into a neighborhood. If there’s no big shootout or earthquake, they’ll pounce on any little accident.

“There isn’t any fire—we need her husband—oh, thank God!” He was racing up the landing, looking elegant as always. You’d never guess he was a typewriter mechanic in his slim-fitted suit and pointed-toe shoes. Nils would always dress up when he went to work—you’d think he owned the grocery himself. If he’d lived, he’d have ended up a partner.

The “Frenchman” walked right into the camera’s eye, pushed the cameraman into a staggering half-spin and rushed to his wife who tried to stand up, but fell back with a moan. “Who’s your doctor?” the super said, “can we help you?”

“No, leave us alone!” The husband was kneeling on my rug to scoop his wife up into his arms. “Open the door, I’m taking her home, upstairs.” But on the landing, the girl screamed. The firemen didn’t wait—”No time, mister”—and practically carried the man with his wife in his arms down all the stairs, the cameraman following.

I stood at the doorsill. My apartment was suddenly hollow. A raw spot stung the knuckles of my hand. At my age, the skin rubs off in shreds like an eraser.  Any small tear takes weeks to heal over. I shut the door and latched the deadbolt, hardly able to breathe, thinking of that girl giving birth in a city hospital in a foreign country. The worst thing is the way women are left alone, just lying and suffering on some shelf. When I had Eric, the doctor disappeared, and I know they were trying to hold me back from birthing until he showed up at last. “You’re doing all right for yourself,” he had the nerve to say. Lying on that cot, I wanted to answer, “No thanks to you!” but didn’t dare. Nowadays, they let the husband stay to hold the wife’s hand, right in the delivery room. Nils couldn’t have stood that.

But her labor didn’t last long. I couldn’t believe what I saw on the six o’clock news. There was myself with hairpins slipping out of my bun, and the husband trying to fight off the firemen with his cramped doll-wife in his arms. By bedtime, I was worn out with explanations to Eric and Kristin on the telephone. “A new citizen,” I said, and cried as if it were my grandson in that hospital incubator. My own children don’t want to get married. Thorsen has two grandchildren, but one lives in Colorado and the other in the Dakotas.

If I could manage the stairs, I’d take a taxi no matter what it costs and go visit the girl in the hospital. Half the people in the building were ringing my doorbell today. “Don’t keep answering the door,” Kristin said, “wait until I get there”—but I could tell they were neighbors. Except two strange men in suits and ties who stuck identity cards with their pictures in front of the peephole. From a government agency. I didn’t let them get past the threshold with their questions, and kept my hand on the inside doorknob, ready to slam it shut if I had to. Everybody has a different idea about the immigration laws. Mrs. Bakka says the baby could stay, but not the mother—what kind of sense does that make? Mrs. Chu says they won’t deport the mother of an American citizen. Mrs. Nicolaso, the super’s wife, says in her experience it depends on whether they’re married before coming over.

Kristin came with the bundles of groceries.

“Did you get the yeast and the dried lingonberries?” I have to bake  something in the house to offer people. “And the milk, and two dozen eggs for Annalie-Marie’s eggnog?” The “bride” will be coming home tomorrow—a nursing mother needs enrichment of her blood.

Kristin nodded, but didn’t smile. Lately, the vertical frown between her eyebrows looks deeper than ever. I kissed her forehead, but she just shook her head and squinched her eyes as if trying not to cry. Even when she was little, Kristin never wanted to cry.  She takes after me that way. Crying does nothing but leave you with red eyes and a headache. I wish she would get a calm job in a department store, maybe, but she’s dedicated to trying to help young people with the kinds of terrible problems they have nowadays—drugs, pregnancies. Such a pretty girl she used to be, but never settled down with a good husband. Grown children don’t realize how their parents always worry about them.

I showed Kristin the round space the girl had rubbed clear on the window pane. “Little one of mine, look—look through at the Statue of Liberty. It’s like you’re seeing her through a porthole.”
 
 

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