Fall 2019, Volume 27

Fiction by Bari Lynn Hein

The Irreplacebles

At first, Jason and I ignored the sonic boom filling our living room. The local news had just started and our cat was eyeing the take-out cartons on our coffee table. Watching a jetliner fly by ranked low on our list of priorities. Nothing beyond dinner piqued our interest until wailing sirens and thumping helicopter blades joined the rumble.

With my belly weighing me down and my appetite voracious, I remained seated and took a bite of an eggroll whose aromas had been tantalizing me for several minutes. While I savored crunchy cabbage and slippery mushrooms contained within a perfectly crisp wrapper, Jason pointed his chopsticks toward the television and said, “That’s us!”

Sure enough, spread across the screen were the tall pines we’d driven by minutes ago and the sidewalk along which I’d recently pictured myself pushing a baby carriage. Incongruous to this everyday view from our balcony, massive flames licked the sky and fire trucks lined the curb. A reporter in the foreground was describing this as a gas main fire.

We all got up, Jason, Romeow and I, and ran/slinked/waddled to a sliding glass door reflecting our television screen. We remained spellbound by the double image until the TV switched to another story.

Jason said, “We have to evacuate.” That he’d chosen this particular word, when he could’ve just as easily said scram or boogie or skedaddle, demonstrated his innate pragmatism, one of many attributes I continue to admire and adore about him. He’d already grabbed his father’s Purple Heart and the cat in the time I’d accomplished nothing more than closing a pair of food cartons.

“Forget the food,” he said. “We need to evacuate.” There it was again, that word, necessitating action, calling for introspection.

Which of our accumulated belongings merited evacuation? My mother’s photo album, filled with black and white pictures from her childhood and color prints from mine? The beautiful painting our friend had given us? There was a rocking horse in the nursery that Jason had finished making less than a week earlier, zebras on my sewing table that I’d pieced together with black and white fabric but had not yet suspended from a mobile. There was a necklace in my jewelry box that Jason had custom-ordered at a mall kiosk on our first date, after I’d complained about never being able to find anything with my name on it. Beside it was my wedding ring, which had recently stopped fitting my finger. I mentally took inventory of the rest of my little treasures, wondered if it might be best to pack the entire jewelry box.

Romeow was fidgeting in Jason’s arms. Jason was fidgeting on the parquet tiles of our tiny foyer. The muscles along his jawline were clenching and unclenching.

“I just need to grab a few things,” I said.

“Hurry.”

“Just the irreplaceables,” I promised him.

Still, I remained at a loss as to what, among my belongings, could not be replaced.

I located and opened the duffel bag I used to bring to the gym (until my abs became the opposite of flat), reached for my wedding album and then reconsidered; we could easily reprint our wedding photos. My mom’s photo album, on the other hand, went directly into the bag.

In the bedroom I bypassed my jewelry box and made a beeline for my bottom dresser drawer, from which I withdrew a stuffed dolphin. Delphina’s gratitude shimmered from her button eyes just as the duffel bag zipper passed her dorsal fin. She was so named by my grandmother, who’d given her to my mother as a get-well gift following a tonsillectomy. My mother, in turn, had given her to me when I was seven, right after breaking the news that we’d be moving cross-country. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I knew who her next recipient would be.

“Not until the kid is like four or five,” Jason had said, when I’d told him my intentions. “Those buttons are choking hazards.” By the middle of my second trimester, he’d already purchased latches for the cabinets, drawers and toilet seat and would probably have installed them right away if I hadn’t convinced him to wait a bit.

Across the hall, Jason and Romeow, his trusty sidekick, were knocking on Mrs. Tanenbaum’s door. I should not have been surprised that my husband was checking on our elderly neighbor; she was first in his thoughts every time snow or ice fell; he was first in hers whenever she encountered computer issues. I locked up our apartment, adjusted the duffel strap over my shoulder and joined him on the landing. Feeling a momentary swell of pride at my husband’s compassion (another attribute I most adore about him), I smiled.

“I don’t think she’s home,” I whispered, after several seconds passed.

At that moment we heard a click and Mrs. Tanenbaum, her silver hair bundled in sponge rollers, opened her door and crossed her arms over a floral duster robe, as if trying to hide it.

“Look how big you are!” she said, gazing at my midsection. “You must be due any day now.”

“Still another month to go,” I said.

Jason spoke quickly to compensate for those few seconds lost to chit chat. “There’s a gas line fire across the street; we should – ”

“I thought I heard sirens.” Mrs. Tanenbaum stepped out and peered down the stairwell. To be fair, her apartment faced the back of our building and she couldn’t be expected to race to the stairs every time she heard sirens, just as I couldn’t’ve been expected to delay that all-important first bite of eggroll. “I’ll just be a minute,” she told us.

Jason sighed inaudibly. He must’ve been wondering, as I was, whether she’d insist on changing out of her duster, removing the rollers from her hair. Perhaps she too would walk around her apartment, contemplating which valuables to rescue.

My mind wandered to all I could still collect from my own home in the time it would take my neighbor to get ready. Perhaps the ring and necklace could be stuffed into one of the outer pockets of the duffel, the zebras into the other. I was seriously considering grabbing the Chinese food to take with us on our escape to destinations unknown.

Instead I remained in the hallway because Jason was smiling at me; perhaps he’d just thought of something he admired or adored about me.

Mrs. Tanenbaum reappeared with a beige trench coat over her duster and an orange scarf over her curlers. She carried nothing in her hands, not even a purse.

When we reached the entrance to the building, seven metal steps down from our landing, she asked me if my duffle bag contained “sentimentals.”

“Yes, well, a few…”

Jason held the door for us and as we stepped through, we were momentarily overwhelmed by the heavy stench of smoke, the amplified volume of chaos. Red and white lights bounced off the smoke clouds, reminding me of a concert we’d once gone to, with flamethrowers and spinning spotlights. Overhead, a helicopter hovered.

Police cruisers and fire trucks blocked our only exit from the neighborhood, so we remained on the grassy hill in front of our building, close to other spectators. I recognized many of those standing around us although I didn’t know their names. There was the woman from the basement who dressed her little girl in pink leotard and tights every Tuesday morning. Beside her stood the man who walked his beagle at dinnertime and neglected to scoop the poop. I saw the family living directly above us, whose children clomped around before sunrise on weekend mornings.

Mrs. Tanenbaum knew them all, addressed them by names that I quickly forgot. She asked the little girl if she was enjoying her dance class, patted the beagle, thanked our upstairs neighbors for a box of salt water taffy they’d recently brought her from the beach. Jason and I watched and listened, a pair of silent observers.

The woman from upstairs had a large bag slung over her shoulder and I wondered about its contents. The woman from the basement had four silver frames leaning against her leg, turned inward. The little girl clutched a Raggedy Ann doll whose orange hair perfectly matched Mrs. Tanenbaum’s scarf.

“You look like you’re ready to pop soon,” her mother told me. Had Mrs. Tanenbaum just called her Margie or Marcie?

“Yes, very soon. Next month.”

“D’you know if it’s a boy or girl?”

“No idea. We didn’t want to know in advance.”

“Well, either way, some of Charlotte’s baby clothes are gender-neutral. I can bring them up to you, if you’d like.”

“That’s so nice of you. Thank you.”

We exchanged smiles as if we were old friends, when in fact I’d only just learned her daughter’s name and most of the letters of her name. Neither of us acknowledged that the baby clothes she’d offered me could soon be incinerated.

Aside from the inferno blasting across the street and emergency vehicles glittering along the curb, the scene on the grassy hill resembled a social gathering. Everyone was talking to someone, including Jason, who rubbed between Romeow’s ears and compared notes with the beagle guy on the best pet stores in the area.

Mrs. Tanenbaum slipped her hand under my arm and told me she also had something for the baby. “Just an old teddy bear. Stop by my apartment when we go back in,” she said, as if certain we’d safely return to our homes before the sun had finished its descent.

A minute later, the fire was extinguished. Just like that. A round of applause faded into the rhythm of the helicopter blades.

How could a fire so furious have been tamed all at once?

The muscles in Jason’s face relaxed. He winked at me.

The beagle guy snickered. “Yup. That’s the way it is with gas main fires.” He shrugged and returned to the building next to ours. The couple with heavy-footed children said goodnight and went inside; their footfalls on the metal steps echoed across the grassy hill.

“I’ll stop by this weekend with those clothes,” Marcie or Margie said. She picked up the four frames that had been propped against her leg; they turned out to be watercolor landscapes.

I told her that would be great, said, “Goodnight, Charlotte,” to her daughter.

When Jason, Mrs. Tanenbaum, Romeow and I reached our shared landing, Jason said goodbye to our neighbor. I was about to do the same, but she had one more piece of unfinished business to attend to. “The bear,” she said. “Come in. Let me show it to you.”

I flashed Jason a look that I hoped he would interpret as: Start reheating dinner. Now! I’m starving. He nodded, knowing me well.

My neighbor’s apartment was a mirror image of mine. Jason had been in here many times, called upon regularly as tech support or handyman. I’d only been in here once or twice. Still reeling from the drama of the fire and its unlikely annihilation, I found myself disoriented. I stayed in the foyer, hoping Jason had chosen to reheat the eggrolls in the oven rather than the microwave.

“Here it is.” Nestled in my neighbor’s hand was a bear the color of caramel. When its silky fur reached my fingers, I realized it was a Stieff, an antique in perfect condition.

“Mrs. Tanenbaum, I can’t…”

“Oh please. I’ve had this little fella since I was a young girl. None of my children or grandchildren claimed him when I moved out of my house. He needs a good home. Besides, you and your husband, as much as you’ve done for me, this is the least I can do for you.”

I couldn’t think of anything I’d ever done for her; it had all been Jason. “He’ll live next door to you, so you can visit him any time you like,” I said.

“Precisely. I can see my sentimentals whenever I like. If I want to play my parents’ piano, I go to my daughter Linda’s house. At Christmastime, I roll out cookies with my grandkids, Doug’s kids, and use the rolling pin my father carved.” She blinked, smiled. “This little fella has taken good care of me. And now he’ll take good care of your baby.”

“You’re very kind.” I placed the bear against my shoulder, as if burping a newborn, perhaps to reassure Mrs. Tanenbaum that she hadn’t made a mistake in relinquishing such a treasure to me.

When I returned home, the garlicky aromas of Chinese takeout had returned, or perhaps they’d never dissipated; the crisis drawing us out of our apartment had been so short-lived.

The local news had ended and the national news was now under way. I stopped moving. Jason, too, froze in the kitchen doorway, two full plates suspended in midair. We’d both been immobilized by the same news report: A wildfire in California had destroyed an entire neighborhood.

When the anchor moved on to the next story, my husband said, “Um, so, she had something to give you?”

“Yeah. A teddy bear. I’ll go put it away and then we can eat.”

“Excellent.”

In the bedroom, my unborn child kicked me for the first time in hours.

I wondered whether Mrs. Tanenbaum regretted giving the bear to me. I wondered if she regretted giving away her other “sentimentals” to her children. I thought about my mother, incapacitated at the end of her life by a cocktail of drugs that weren’t doing what they were supposed to do, insisting I take her photo album. I had argued with her. I’d told her it was hers, that she should hang onto it, enjoy it. I’d nearly added: for the time you have left.

I heard the HBO hum. Dinner and a movie awaited me in the living room.

The stuffed bear and dolphin went side by side into the bottom of my dresser. Their eyes shimmered just before I closed the drawer.

 

 

 

BIO: Bari Lynn Heinís stories are published or forthcoming in Adelaide, The Saturday Evening Post, The Ilanot Review, HCE Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Sand Hills and other literary journals. Recent awards include placement in The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest, Jerry Jazz Musician 48th Short Fiction Contest, the OWT Short Fiction Prize, the WOW Spring Contest and daCunha Short Story Contest (1st place). Her debut novel is on submission. Learn more on her website: barilynnhein.com