I leaned back in the kayak, shutting my eyes, letting the sun warm my face. The soft rocking of the waves lulled me into a half-dose, the only sounds were the lapping of the water and the cry of a seagull.
Which is why when I answered the phone that sunny afternoon, bad news was the last thing I was expecting.
My aunt’s voice shook. “It’s really bad, Joanie. Bad.”
I lurched upright, nearly tipping the kayak. “What’s bad?”
She sniffed and didn’t answer.
“Aunt Rebecca? What happened?”
I heard a muffled announcement in the background. “Dr. Snowden, Code Blue. Room 424.” My aunt said, “I can’t talk. Call Peggy.” She hung up the phone.
Mystified and not a little unsettled, I dialed my cousin Peggy’s number. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mom and Dad’s house caught on fire. Dad’s a bit burned, Mom’s okay. We’re at the hospital now.”
“How badly was he burned?”
“I’m not sure.”
“How long will he be there?”
“The doctor hasn’t said.”
“Will he need surgery?”
“The doctor hasn’t said.”
“Well, Peggy, if there’s anything I can do to help….”
How often do people take you up on those offers? And when they do, what do they ask for? Maybe a ride home from the hospital or a hot meal prepared.
“Thanks, I’ll have to think…” She cut herself off mid-sentence. “Hey, there is something you could do.”
“Name it, Peggy. Anything.”
“Could maybe you, and Ben, go over to the house? See what’s going on, find where the fire started? Dad was doing his gasoline experiments, I think in the kitchen. Then call and tell me how bad it is.”
“Sure, Peggy. Anything.”
I called my brother Ben and told him the story. “So will you go with me? It won’t take but a few minutes.”
“Just look around? No problem.”
We agreed to meet in half an hour. I rowed to the dock and got a man to help me tie the kayak to the roof of my car. Then I went home to wait for Ben.
He picked me up in his battered Chevy Ram that had no glass in the passenger’s window, his wavy blond hair an unruly mess. By the time we arrived at our cousins’ house, my brown curls were as tousled as his.
We’d practically lived there as kids, and even now in our early twenties, all had keys to the house we thought of as a home away from home. We pulled up to the two-story house with green awnings hanging over the windows, the faded green awnings that shaded the front windows since the house was built in the fifties.
“Can’t be too bad,” Ben said. “The fire trucks are gone. House looks ok.”
I nodded and hopped out of the truck, I flipping though my key ring, searching for the right one. There was the usual jiggling to make the stiff lock turn. I pushed open the front door and walked in.
Every footstep squished on the soaked carpet. I sneezed from the combined smell of damp carpet and smoke, not pleasant smoke like from a campfire made of burning pine, but bitter. The piano showed signs of having had a shower, and damp spots decorated the walls in between the family pictures.
“Nothing burned here,” I said.
“Should we try upstairs?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, just to see.” We climbed up to the upper story and peeked in the bedrooms. Other than the heavy smell of burnt wood, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“This is good,” Ben said. “Seems like they got it contained in the kitchen.”
I had a vision of meals we’d eaten in that kitchen, with its large windows facing the back yard and beyond it, the creek that lined their property. The kitchen opened to a screened-in porch, where in the summers we’d eat corn on the cob and compete to see who could get their ear of corn the cleanest. I always won.
Once downstairs we pushed through the swinging doors to the kitchen, wood doors that looked like they belonged in an old-time western saloon. The smoke smell was stronger here, its bitterness stinging not just my nose but my throat. The counters, table and sink were clear of any mess.
Ben’s brown eyes stared into mine and he let out a long breath. “No.”
I closed my eyes. “The basement.”
“No, not the basement.”
I stepped toward on the basement door, which was standing ajar. Then I switched on the light and took a few steps down. “Ben…”
He joined me on the steps, silently surveying the burnt jumble of books, broken toys and tools below. I shook my head and pulled out my phone.
A few calls later, we had a plan. Peggy had already called the insurance adjustor, and Ben and I would wait for him. In the meantime, we could start sorting through the basement, looking for what could be salvaged.
“I’ll text you a list of things I think Mom and Dad will want to save, like Aunt Margie’s grandmother’s china, Dad’s Caruso albums, Aunt Jennifer’s quilt. Some of them might be upstairs, but you never know. Try to find everything, ok? It will mean a lot to them.”
In answer to my question, she answered, “Dad’s ok,” she added, “but sedated. I don’t want to bother him or Mom. Just do the best you can. And could you throw away anything that’s not worth saving? This is our best chance…”
She didn’t have to explain. My uncle, ever thrifty, never met a piece of junk that might not come in handy some day. The basement was packed from floor to ceiling with his garage sale treasures; the attic and garage were in the same state. My aunt and cousins despaired of ever cleaning them out. Until now.
I stared at the phone. You owe me, Peggy. Big time.
I shared the news with Ben, who glared at me. “You said this would be easy.”
“That’s what I thought. Peggy didn’t say anything about cleaning when she called before.”
He sighed. “What first?”
“I’ll go through the upper floors, and find what I can from Peggy’s list. You can start down here. When I’m done upstairs, I’ll help you.”
“Right. Just after I’ve finished the gross part.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It will only take me a few minutes. You’ll barely have begun by the time I’m done. Trust me.”
“Why do you always have to tell everyone what to do?” he muttered.
“Because I’m the one with all the good ideas.”
“Huh. I seem to remember a few that weren’t so bright.”
I had to smile at a sudden memory. I must have been about seven, Ben five. That year we’d spent our family vacation up in Maine. We drove eight hours back on a hot day when the air conditioning in the car broke. Ben somehow for once didn’t get carsick.
We stopped at our cousins’ for a minute before going home. Peggy and her older brother Jim came running from around the side of the house. She grabbed my hand and dragged me to the back yard. “Look!” She pointed to a brand new whirl-a-gig, a metal contraption with four seats arranged in a circle, facing each other. Each seat had a set of handles. If you pumped with your feet and hands, the whole thing would spin around.
“Let’s try it!” I shouted and jumped on a seat.
Peggy and Jim climbed on as well. “Come on, Ben,” they said.
“I don’t know…”
“Come on, Ben, it will be fun,” I said. “Trust me.”
He looked at me doubtfully, then clambered on the fourth seat. We all started pumping, three of us laughing.
It didn’t take long, maybe a minute or two. Ben turned white, then the color of canned peas, and then rolled onto the grass, throwing up the remains of the hot dog he’d eaten for lunch. Eighteen years later, he was still suspicious of me and my ideas.
Next week, Part 2.