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Fireman’s Ball, 1991

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Rachel Flood clutched her can of diet soda, flinched at the acid in her mouth, and counted the men in the fire hall she had slept with, all before she had turned seventeen. Not for romance, not in courtship; these had been numbed things, animal rutting. At the time, she hadn’t cared that some were married. There were eight in this room. Or eight and a half, because she had once given a blow job to the fireman who was currently pumping the keg for her mother.

Nine years had passed since she had left town, and these men had become beasts: Phil Faciana, fifty pounds heavier, a beard that crept up just below his eyes, a werewolf face. Doug Applehaus, still handsome, but now with a crazy look in his eyes, wearing a long black trench coat, like an assassin or a sex offender. The Hagerman brothers, separated by three years but balding at the same rate, built like sasquatches then and now. Standing beside one of the barrels were two firemen she sort of recognized, but she knew she had screwed each individually at the drive-in theater in Ellis. She remembered their cars—an AMC Pacer and a Chrysler Cordoba, the former with no backseat at all, and the latter with a backseat as big as a couch. And there was Bud Neilson, in the shadows of the flickering light. He had been her first, old back then and even older now, face gray from chain-smoking or organ failure. He stood as still as a mummy, a taxidermied version of the man with whom she had lost her virginity, although Rachel hated to think of it as something lost—she had been eager to discard it, like people born with a tail. She had been fourteen, a firehouse groupie, skidding on her cheap heels, slipping on the oil slicks from the fire engines, desperately offering up cases of beer stolen from her mother’s bar.

Rachel was here to make amends, to show up and be a productive and helpful member of the community. Normally, her amends consisted of letters mailed to old lovers, police officers, women she had beat up for no good reason. But she could not write letters to the nine hundred people in her hometown, and so she had temporarily moved back to Quinn to make things right. Her sponsor had tried to get her to just accept it, to forget that her hometown had ever existed. But Rachel could not. All of the other steps were easy, even the sex inventory, but Rachel could not stop thinking of the entire town that hated her. She had decided to be a living apology, and do her time, until she could finally move on. It was necessary to be seen at this event, to let them all know she was back in town, to be of service, to right her name.

Rachel’s own mother returned every amends letter she had written. The only letter not returned contained a check for one thousand dollars. Either Laverna Flood was psychic, or she read them all along, steaming and resealing the envelopes. The check was cashed. Rachel came to the fire hall to find her, figuring that although her mother would most likely be drunk, there would be witnesses, in case things took a violent turn.

Rachel was nervous as she regarded the fire hall, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. She felt no fear for more than a year, managed to replace it with her version of faith. Rachel didn’t have much experience feeling things—it was only in the last few years that the suit of armor she had worn since junior high had begun to be removed, piece by piece. She hardened herself from an early age, to protect herself from an occasionally cruel mother and a constantly judgmental town. Feeling would have left her vulnerable, and she had no interest in being a victim. She needed to injure and destroy and move quickly, before she was caught and figured out. In the last year, most of her homework involved grace, and acceptance, and moving on. But she could not move on from this.

The fire hall was roasting, shimmering with heat from the two metal barrels stuffed with kindling and the cardboard detritus from cases upon cases of beer. Both garage doors were wide open—she could see the snow falling outside, the wind catching it and sending it into curlicues. The space smelled of heavy machinery and light housekeeping, of mousetraps that were never emptied, bathrooms that only men would use. It was uncomfortably hot; she needed space, so she pushed herself through the crowd and found a place against a wall, the metal cool from the winter storm whipping around outside.

She stood there, trying to make eye contact. Few would look at her, and if they did, it was to stare and they seem startled. Hers was a face everyone in the room would always remember. She did not look like anybody else in Quinn, an alien among the rough, the common, and the interrelated. She was tall, broad through the shoulders for a woman, but her hips were narrow. She had big feet, and small breasts, and a stubborn mound of beer belly, even after a year. It was the only round part of her; she was a woman made of severe angles. She was a natural blonde and a notoriously cheap date, and at one time, she believed that these were her only redeeming qualities.

The volunteer firemen were celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Someone had decided that the Quinn Volunteer Fire Department was formed, more or less, in 1951. There had never been any reliable record keeping, but they had designated this night a special occasion. There was going to be a raffle for a gun. Rachel had been bullied into buying ten raffle tickets, at one dollar a piece, by four schoolchildren, filthy ones, who refused to leave her alone, despite her attempts to explain to them that she was a vegetarian and a firm believer in gun control.

The only other person standing alone was her new neighbor. As she had moved boxes from her truck, Bert Russell watched from a dirty living room window. Rachel had worked at her mother’s bar as a teenager, and she had served Bert often. Even though Rachel sought out older lovers, the nine-year age difference was not enough for her to flirt with him, because he was short and coarse and homely. He had nothing she had wanted as a teenage girl, just a disability check. His thick nose hooked down, nearly covering his grim mouth. When he got drunk, he sat at the bar silently, marinating in his past. All these years later, Rachel could finally sympathize.

She approached him carefully, stood next to him without speaking, as he drank and stared at the cement floor.

“I guess we’re neighbors now,” said Rachel. He glanced at her out of the side of one eye. “I didn’t know you were a fireman.”

“I’m not,” he said.

“How have you been?”

This was met with silence. Bert came from one of the oldest families in Quinn, and certainly the most tragic. He had earned the right to be taciturn.

“Gosh,” said Rachel. “I can’t believe it’s been nine years.”

“Stop talking,” said Bert. Rachel did not want to be seen alone. She remained standing next to him, because he was a native, and that offered her some cover. Bert’s father had been a hunting guide, specializing in finding black bears for drunken, fat assholes from the East Coast, and made thousands of dollars putting down the bears the tourists had grazed with bullets. They were terrible shots and too fat to chase the wounded bears. It was Bert Senior’s job to track them down and finish them off, sever the head or the paw. The souvenir depended on the cost of the package the fat asshole had purchased. Bert Senior left the rest of the body in the woods to rot.

Rachel tried to make small talk again. “I’m really here to talk to my mother,” she admitted. “I knew she’d be here.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Bert. Rachel regretted bringing up mothers. When Bert was seventeen, his mother went out to pick mushrooms in an area recently scorched by a small forest fire, and slipped on the new growth, cracking her head open on a bombed-out stump, bleeding to death overnight. The search lasted for a day, and Bert Senior shot himself in the head two hours after the memorial service. Bert had become an orphan in the span of five days. Instead of mourning, Bert had gone shopping. He blew his inheritance on a new truck and a trailer to haul his new speedboat. He forgot to tie it down completely, and it flew through the air as he sped toward the lake, nearly killing the people in the car behind him. A month later, Bert’s new truck and trailer were found upside down in the shallows of the Kootenai River, a truck-size hole blasted through the guardrails of the rickety bridge above. Bert became a cautionary tale, just like Rachel. Bert walked away from the wreck, left it there, knowing that someone else would have to clean up the mess. Rachel could identify with that as well.

Bert finally broke the silence. “I don’t want to be seen with you,” he said. He fled to the rear of the fire hall, and Rachel watched as the crowd parted for him. Enough time had passed that they did not whisper, but it was clear the town still worried that his speedboat of a mind was not completely tied down.

The heaviest drinkers never left the immediate vicinity of the kegs, sunk in garbage cans, slowly settling in their shawls of crushed ice. Rachel spotted groups of Clinkenbeards, Runkles, Giefers, and Dempseys. Ginger Fitchett kicked at a strand of crepe paper that had fallen from the ceiling, and lit a long and thin cigarette, the sole person in Quinn who smoked that brand. Ginger was the richest woman in town, owner of the Sinclair, the town’s only gas station. She was drinking a wine cooler with Martha Man Hands, her longtime cashier. Martha was a Russell, somehow related to Bert, but her last name was unimportant. Ginger hired Martha and her truly enormous hands twenty years ago, and the nickname had stuck. Those hands and hairy knuckles were hard to ignore, as they handed back change for a twenty, or a corn dog in a greasy paper bag. Rachel’s attention was captured as Tabby Pierce opened her compact, and the fires of the barrels flashed on the tiny mirror. Tabby powdered her forehead, shiny from the heat. Ten years ago, Tabby was hired to replace Rachel at the bar. She was also tangentially related to Bert, a toddler in the car that the airborne speedboat nearly destroyed. Tabby checked her teeth for lipstick and closed her compact, rejoined the noisy crowd. Rachel realized there was an order, groups were determined by genes, marriages, or restraining orders. Rachel’s mother was among them.

Rachel had not seen her mother in nine years, but she had not changed one whit. Laverna Flood was on the short side, mousy-brown hair permed and cut close to her head. Laverna’s mouth was a severe line, the perfect accessory for the expectant look on her face. She owned the Dirty Shame, one of two bars in Quinn, and she had the face of a bartender, impatiently waiting for customers to make up their mind about what kind of beer they wanted, even though there were only three options, and they always ended up ordering the same thing anyway.

Rachel waved and tried—unsuccessfully—to catch her mother’s eye, but Laverna was at least twenty feet away, and Rachel no longer threw lit cigarettes at people to get their attention. So she stared until her mother turned and regarded her with heavy, weary eyes. Rachel raised her diet soda in salute. Laverna turned back to her cabal of friends, one of whom was pushing the keg pump up and down so ferociously that her breast threatened to fall out of her dirty tank top. Judging by the size of the breast and the lack of bra, Rachel knew it was Red Mabel. This meant that Black Mabel was lurking somewhere else, and if nothing had changed in the last nine years, she was most likely selling painkillers in the darkest corners of the room.

A young fireman materialized before her. He was probably a senior in high school, because the QVFD recruited early, indoctrinated them as soon as their delighted parents signed the waiver, rolling their eyes at the very thought of liability. People in this town were immune to danger. There was always a bear or a drunk driver or food poisoning from salads made with mayonnaise.

This fireman had a squirrely disposition, and buckteeth to match. He twitched, rocked back and forth on his boots, but remained standing silently before her. He had probably been dared to do this, possibly by Laverna.

She took a sip of her diet soda. He remained silent.

“What?” She wanted this to be over as soon as possible.

“Dance?” His voice was deeper than expected. His face was bare of any whiskers or stubble, his sloe eyes lashed heavily, and for a split second, she wondered if she was being propositioned by a lesbian.

“Absolutely not,” she said, and stared at him. He looked frightened, and then he extended his hand.

“My name’s Bucky,” he said.

“Of course it is.” She looked past him, toward her mother’s cabal, to see if they were watching all this unfold. She was reminded of the piles of mousetraps, rotting in every corner of the room. If this kid was bait, they could have done better.

“I’m a Petersen. I think you went to school with my older sister.”

“Jesus Christ,” she said. Rachel did remember her. The Petersen girl had been a chain-smoking cheerleader who got knocked up their sophomore year. She had been unfortunate looking, a giant head and a moon-shaped face, legs like stumps, the unshakable base of every cheerleading pyramid. This bucktoothed creature did not mention his cousin Billy, and Rachel was thankful.

“My sister warned me. She said you were a real piece of work. She didn’t tell me you were hot as hell.” He winked. She shuddered.

“Stop,” she commanded. She considered lecturing him about feminism, or sexual harassment. “Stop, or I’m going to kick you.”

“Can I get you a drink?” He gestured to the kegs, bobbing like buoys in the melting ice water. “You need to loosen up, lady.”

“How old are you?” Rachel didn’t really want to know the answer; she just wanted to steer the conversation away from alcohol.

“Nineteen,” he said proudly. He was so eager. “So can I get you a drink?”

“No,” she said. “But you can bring my mother a message.” She pointed at Laverna, just as her mother belched and leaned into the softer parts of Red Mabel. “Go tell her to come talk to me, or I’m leaving.”

“Why don’t you go tell her yourself?”

“Red Mabel wants to kill me,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “She wants to kill a lot of people. She’s a real angry person.”

“Go,” she commanded, and he did.

She watched as he skulked away, clearly terrified, and she turned her attention to a red-faced couple attempting a lazy jitterbug, moving at half time, because the song was a ballad. They were the only dancers, although there was some movement from a few drunkards leaning up against the wall, slightly swooning, heads bobbing like sloppy metronomes, eyes closed.

Rachel closed her own eyes but opened them quickly, sensing a threat.

Here was her mother, clutching her plastic cup of beer and looming dangerously, so close that Rachel could smell the Oil of Olay and the cigarettes on her fingers. Too close, especially after all these years.

“What?” Her mother’s voice was still the same, imperious and scratchy. “You’d better get out of here before Red Mabel sees you. There’s guns here.”

“I know,” said Rachel. “I bought raffle tickets.”

“You’d better start saving your cash, Miss Big City. That trailer house is a goddamn money pit.”

Rachel had received a slim letter. This was how she found out her father had passed away, this official notice from a lawyer naming her the sole beneficiary. She had barely known her father but still felt something inside her tear when she ripped open the thicker envelope that had arrived two days later—papers to notarize, two keys, a typewritten list of the things of value: a 1970 Fleetwood trailer house, a small lot in a trailer court measuring ninety-eight by two hundred feet, a Stihl chain saw, a 1980 Toyota Corona, and a checking account containing exactly $2,034.08. She immediately called her AA sponsor and proclaimed it a sign.

“No,” her sponsor had said. “Not a sign. It’s estate law. That’s how it works.”

“I can’t help but think of it as fate,” Rachel had insisted. “It means something.”

“You don’t have to accept every gift you’ve been given,” her sponsor had said, somewhat coolly. “I suspect this one might have some strings attached.”

And it did. The strings were in her face at this very moment, and they had hot beer breath. Her mother extended a finger and poked Rachel in the chest. Rachel took a deep breath. This encounter would be unpredictable, a teeter-totter.

“The last time I saw you at a Fireman’s Ball, they had to scrape you off the floor. Could’ve used a giant fucking spatula.”

“I don’t drink anymore,” said Rachel.

“That’s what you keep telling me,” muttered Laverna, her shadow fifteen feet long, wobbling in the heat.

“I never told you that. You returned all my letters. I haven’t talked to you in over nine years.”

“Word gets around,” said Laverna, somewhat ominously.

“Well,” said Rachel. “I’m excited about the house.”

“I take it you haven’t met your neighbors yet.” Laverna cackled, and then she was gone.

Rachel wondered if her sponsor had been right, that this insistence on proving herself was a mistake. She glanced nervously toward Red Mabel, who fairly resembled a black bear, burly, all haunches. Her face got dark brown in the summer, but year-round her hair was massive and black. The people of Quinn called her Red Mabel because she had Kootenai blood. The people of Quinn had chosen black to distinguish the other Mabel, because of her rotted smile, teeth long dead from too many amphetamines and too little floss. Black Mabel was a drug dealer and a thief and a pool shark and a terrible drunk driver. Not terrible because she did it often, but because she did it so poorly.

Rachel had always loved Black Mabel. Both of the Mabels were barflies, but they were never seen together. There was a begrudging respect between them, a draw. Their personalities had arm wrestled and neither budged.

The Chief of the QVFD emerged from the restroom and nodded curtly at Rachel as he passed, drying his hands on the legs of his wool pants. He had several chins and was fleshy, but not fat. He was completely bald, and his eyebrows were each as thick as a thumb.

When Rachel had been a junior in high school, this man had been the grand marshal of the Fourth of July parade. He had ridden in the back of the oldest known truck in town, and Rachel had been behind him, clomping down the streets in the marching band, attached to a bass drum, the harness pinching into her shoulders with every step. He was chosen to be the grand marshal that year because he had put out the most chimney fires in one winter, more than any volunteer who had come before him.

A creature with no eyebrows approached Rachel, chomping gum, fearless. Della Dempsey. Rachel could never forget such a face, smooth brow like a burn victim.

“Rachel? Rachel Flood?”

Rachel sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know who that is,” she said. And it was true, in a way. She would not have to call her sponsor; she did not tell a lie. After she sobered up, Rachel had no idea who she was anymore. She didn’t know what really made her happy. She was figuring it out as she went along.

The Chief yanked at an extension cord until it dislodged itself from the wall, and the music stopped, mid-song. In the corner, the lone couple continued their clumsy dance. Della waited for Rachel to say something, anything, but just like in high school, Rachel stared right past her.

He stomped to the center of the room and pulled a flashlight from his back pocket, illuminating the cement around his feet.

“Raffle,” he announced.

One of the volunteer firemen leaped to his feet, coming forth from the shadows, clutching a coffee can that was filled with ripped halves of ticket stubs. A brand-new rifle was slung across his back.

The Chief barked again: “Remington Model 870 Super Mag twelve-gauge shotgun.”

Rachel did not know what most of this string of words meant; it sounded like an incantation, a curse.

“Check your stubs,” said the Chief, and that was it. He was so no-nonsense that Rachel was absolutely certain she had never had sex with him. She never had sex with men who knew what they were doing.

The Chief pinched a half ticket between his giant fingers, shone his flashlight and squinted.

“Six-two-seven,” he proclaimed. The revelers examined their numbers.

Some people had entire handfuls of ticket stubs. Others bolted out the door to grab tickets from the jockey boxes of their automobiles. This was going to take some time.

Rachel tried to make herself as small as possible as she slunk toward the exit.

“Six-two-seven,” bellowed the Chief again, obviously annoyed, as purses were emptied onto the floor, and hands were jammed deeper into pockets of blue jeans, digging desperately.

Rachel had memorized the string of salmon-colored tickets she had bought from the schoolchildren. They had been attached to each other, spun off the roll in one long chain, numbers 624 through 634.

“Six-two-seven,” shouted the Chief. She could hear the exasperation in his voice as she passed him, as she made her way out into the cold, clear night. A small brown dog darted away from her, no collar, no tags. The dog ran under a fire truck as she approached. Even the strays of this town were frightened by Rachel Flood.

She walked across the frozen gravel. She’d never had luck of any kind. She supposed she was lucky that she had escaped this town. But that had not been luck—Rachel had been driven out. There probably would have been townspeople coming after her with torches, if it hadn’t been fire season.

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