The Possibility of Fire by Jessica Barksdale


Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and The Instant When Everything is Perfect. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.

Prizewinner - 2013 Esoteric Contest

“A don wa i,” Robert says, his voice a soppy slur.

For the eighth time today, I wonder what it would be like to kill my ex-husband. The good news is that it would be easy. I wouldn’t even have to touch his body. When I started to imagine killing him that was my first worry, blood on my hands and such.

“You have to eat it,” I say instead of killing him. “It’s part of your diet. You heard the nurse. Don’t pretend your hearing’s gone bad, too.”

“Fuh yu,” he says, turning away, scanning the dirty floor, his eyes connecting the bird shit yogurt splots.

Even though he can barely move, my ex-husband still has a temper.

I sit back in my chair, looking into the kitchen that used to be our kitchen but is now mine. After Robert left, I had it gutted and remodeled, installing stainless steel appliances and sleek granite. When it was done, I thought, this is a kitchen that will never bear witness to thrown plates and smashed glasses. This is a room that will never be a container for the word “fuck.”

But I was wrong, though now “fuh” is the best Robert can do.

He looks at me, his right eye that old, mean eye, harsh and accusing. The left eye seems asleep, even though it is wide open, staring at me.

“Soo,” he says. “No mo sht.”

“I didn’t make soup,” I say, pushing the spoonful of organic vanilla yogurt through the cave door of his yellow teeth. “Tomorrow.”

“Fuh yu.” He swallows, smacks his lips, grins his horrible, lopsided grin. “Fuh yu.”

I wouldn’t have to plan too hard. All I would need to do is pour water down his throat. Every single visiting nurse warns me about aspiration.

“Slow and steady,” they say. “Let him chew and swallow. Let him take in liquids one sip at a time. If anything goes into his lungs, it could mean pneumonia. And mostly, we don’t catch it in these kinds of cases until it’s progressed too far. So like I said. Slow and steady.”

When Robert was my husband, he wrestled me—stumbling, lurching, gagging—over the open edge of the bedroom window, three stories up, threatened to let me fall. He threw a dictionary at my head, the hard leather edge whamming against my right cheekbone. He tripped me as I walked up the stairs. He slammed a car door on my hand. Robert has called me every known evil word in the two languages he knows. He did all these things in front of our sons, Tony and his older brother Sean. Sometimes before I fall asleep at night, I still hear them both crying and pleading, “Stop, Daddy. Stop.”

Daddy only stopped when he was “fucking good and ready.”

Later when Robert finally felt he needed to give us one, his big excuse was the drinking, which he eventually stopped, just before he left. He left Tony and me in the hangover of his old habits and life, and went out to start over fresh. Rehab fixed him up for a new wife, who left him about a month after she found him shaking from stroke on the floor of their shiny new condo in San Francisco. Clutching her shopping bags, she discovered him long after aspirin would have been of any help. Other than the automatic monthly alimony payments (lawyer Robert thought this marriage was bullet-proof so there was no pre-nup), the last we heard from her were the final divorce papers.

And now I have him back, my ex-husband with two ex-wives.

“He has no one else,” his sister Liz said the first time she called. In the background, I could hear her four children bouncing off the walls of her two-bedroom Florida panhandle condo. “After the hospitals and that woman, there’s barely enough left for even a year in a convalescent facility.”

“So let him stay there for a year,” I said, my voice as hard as I could make it. “Then you can figure it out.”

“What about Sean and Tony!” Liz said.

“He’s your flesh and blood,” I said. “Not mine.”

“But Robert’s your boys’ father.”

“Their father?” I said. “Do you know what their father was like?”

“Don’t start with that. I mean, really. If it was so bad, why didn’t you leave him? You had the chance. Tons of them.”

I’d heard this before. From my mother when she was alive. From my sisters, too, both of whom stopped speaking to me after a while, unable to keep saying the same thing over and over again.

Liz sighed. “Look. I remember when you two fell in love. I know how crazy you were about him. And besides, no matter what, he is the father of your children.”

I also remembered, skinny Liz in sandals and a halter dress standing shyly on the porch of the family home as Robert held my hand tight and introduced me, his new girlfriend. As Liz and their parents said hello and invited me into their home and family, I felt connected and whole. All because of Robert.

That first phone call, I eventually hung up on Liz, but she was relentless, calling weekly, each time giving me some part of the past to hold up and examine: Robert arranging Sean and Tony on his shoulders so they could see the Fourth of July parade pass by, the family trip to Tahoe, Robert’s and my wedding, Liz a geeky bridesmaid with shiny braces. During the fourth call, I kept thinking I would hang up like usual, but then I didn’t. As I pressed the phone to my ear listening to Liz reel off the litany of Robert’s woes, a space opened up for a different answer. I didn’t know if I was afraid or excited. But something made me breathe faster.

“Fine,” I said. “He can come home.”

Now if I wanted to, I could wheel Robert over to the sliding glass door and topple him out onto the concrete steps, listening to his neck bones crack. On a cold rainy night, I could drive him in the wheelchair-accessible van and roll him to the middle of a forest or field and drive away. I could pour a pitcher of water down his throat and let him burble his way into a horrendous infection.

“Fuh yu,” he says, knowing what I’m thinking, just like he always did, even from across the room or on a different floor.

“Yeah,” I say, spooning the last of the yogurt in his mouth. “We’re done. I think I’m ready for a drink. Doesn’t that sound good?”

Robert’s right eye starts to cry.

“Maybe I’ll make it a double, no rocks.” I stand up and pick up the bowl. “It’s such a shame you can’t join me.”

I stand over him, one hand on my hip, the hip Robert used to tell me was too big, too ugly, too fat. I was an “ugly fucking bitch whore” when he was drunk, and invisible when he was sober, not good enough to go with him to his law firm holiday parties, the annual partner celebrations, the firm’s ball games and beach outings. He picked his second wife as though he were shopping at the new wife store, the slim, trim model for show and go, Sandy thin and chesty, blond and tan.

Robert looks at the table, mouthing his old favorite, ugly words, but he doesn’t speak them, hoping that I might relent and give him what he wants. But that’s never, ever going to happen.

.  .  .

At the support group, I sit next to Darl, whose wife Ann has multiple sclerosis. Apparently, this MS wasn’t so bad when they were first married and even after the births of their two children, but now she’s in her wheelchair all day long. Like me, Darl has visiting home healthcare nurses in and out of the house, a new one showing up without notice, all of them repeating instructions to him as though he were some kind of idiot.

“’Now, make sure you don’t tire her out,’” Darl mimics, rubbing his forehead. “Like I’m taking her on marathons, for god’s sake. We aren’t even leaving the house! She can’t even walk! Sometimes I wonder if she’s even breathing!”

The group nods. Our therapist Sophie says something comforting in her low, modulated tone. But what can Sophie really tell him that will help anything? We all know this story. Darl, Gene, Ramona, Linh, Samantha, Brian, Todd, Trina, Jie, Pat. We know what’s it’s like for the health insurance not to pay for permanent care but to send out the flunkies who are just off the nursing school boat. What we need is a state-of-the art hospital, full-time nurses, attendants, cooks, housekeeping staff. We don’t need anyone else to tell us what this is like. We know the odor of the evening kitchen, a fetid heap of plates and bowls smeared with food that can’t even be called food anymore—glops of pureed mush, the stuff the nurses say helps “avoid aspiration.”

We know the heft of a full bag of urine, the hot weight of paper towels full of shit.

We know the mounds of sweaty, soiled laundry, when all the above—kitchen, bathroom, bedroom—goes to hell, mess upon mess, nothing that any spot remover, mop, cleanser can fix.

We know the sound of being alone in a house with “our” patients, their insistent, ragged breathing the only sound to interrupt a long twenty-four hours of nothing.

What Darl and I and the entire group need is a vacation in a five-star hotel, the kind that Robert took Sandy to on their month-long honeymoon through Italy. The type of ritzy establishment where you are helped out of a car, led up the steps, ushered into a foyer vast and grand, the air the exact perfect temperature, maybe 70 degrees. You are checked in by a swat team of workers, your bags rustled mysteriously through service elevators and side halls. When you walk into your suite, you are led through a magical mystery tour of cappuccino makers, free mini bar, hot tub, steam room, Turkish towels, premier bath and body products, and, most importantly, a view of ocean, snow covered mountain, cityscape of red-roofed villas from the platform of your plush king-sized bed. At some point—maybe on your balcony where you sit with the one you love best and who loves you back the right way, both of you raising a glass of the complimentary champagne—you realize that you’ve forgotten every single part of your life.

“Sorry about that,” Darl says as we stack the community center’s folding chairs. “I’m not on my game today.”

“What game is that?” I ask, imagining a gruesome Parcheesi, a terrible Sorry, an apt Trouble, a really bad, medical terminology Scrabble.

Darl gives me a dark, annoyed glance.

I shrug, sigh. “I’m sorry, too. I’m not doing well myself.”

“What about your younger son? Tony?” Darl asks. All of us know the names of loved ones and friends, the diminishing chain of relation, the people who now won’t help as much as they used to or at all. “Isn’t he pitching in?”

“He left for college,” I say, feeling the pang under my left collarbone. “He didn’t want to go.”

“But you made him,” Darl says. “Good mom. What about that older one?”

“Sean’s still in New York.”

Darl doesn’t say anything, and I know he’s thinking ingrate, bad apple, pain-in-the-ass.

Sean might be all these things, calling once a month as he does, not coming home for the holidays, refusing to let me put the phone to his father’s ear when he does bother to call.

But I don’t want him anywhere near here. I want him to stay gone in a different version of his life. It took me a while to learn to hide Robert’s bad moods, my bloody noses, black eyes, the head-to-foot numb feeling of fear. Sean saw all of it, heard the screams at night, followed my limp like a tracking dog, noticed me cradling my arm like a wounded animal. He watched me not leave over and over again. He saw his mother not protect herself his whole life.

He deserves to never have to come home again.

.  .  .

Outside, it’s almost dusk, the summer sky a lavender gray that clutches Lake Merritt. Darl and I head toward the sidewalk and our cars parked on Grand Avenue, but we don’t stop like we should, getting back in our separate vehicles and heading home to face the nurse and her litany of terrible news: didn’t eat, won’t talk, refused bath, yelled until I left the room.

We wave to Samantha as she roars off in her yellow Mustang, but then we keep going, past the new restaurant and gas station and bookstore.

“If you could do anything differently, what would it be?” Darl asks.

I swallow, feeling a bad answer on my tongue. But instead, I say, “I wouldn’t marry him.”

Darl turns to me, and I flame red, knowing I sound bad, but that’s only the top, tiny icy layer.


I nod.

“But then your kids,” he says.

“I’d have different kids,” I say, already mourning Sean and Tony as I let the sentence out into the air. The idea of their not-being fills me with nothing. But the reverse of this is true, too. They’d have different parents. All this story, gone.

“It was that bad,” Darl says, surprising me.

I nod again, sodden with sadness, a watery, victimy goo that I have almost forgotten, the slurpy mess I floated in for years.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have married Ann,” he says. “But I probably would, even knowing. I loved her so much. Things looked like they might turn out just fine.”

“They always do,” I say, remembering the way Robert turned to me so often those first two years, his eyes sparkly with hope and joy and love. What I did was right. Who I was, was right, too. “And then they don’t.”

Darl doesn’t say anything for a while, and we cross the street, heading over to the Grand Lake Theatre that flashes bright into the growing darkness, the titles of all the movies dark like blackened teeth against the glowing white sign.

“I haven’t seen a movie in a long time,” he says, staring up at the list, reminding me of my boys and those Sundays I would take them to a movie, their choice. We’d go when Robert was out at a bar, using up our moments of freedom wisely. The boys would pick adventure, sci-fi, animation, and I would sit still in the mystery of peace, all my attention on movies I would never pick for myself. The story would take me over, and I would relax into lives so not mine. But the anxiety would creep back as the credits rolled, and I knew I’d have to take us all back home.

“Do you want to go?” I ask, the words out before I can pull them back, more on their tail. “Maybe there’s one that starts now.”

For a moment, I see Darl’s hope. He looks at me, brown eyes wide, a smile on his face, the idea that something so spontaneous and remarkable could happen a thrill, just as it is for me. For maybe two hours, for just a little while, we could be gone.

As Darl considers, I can see him as a younger man, the man who decided not to marry Ann, who moved on to the next woman or the next after that. A man who wouldn’t be standing on this busy street corner with a woman like me.

“Well,” he says, looking up at the list and the posted times next to the title.

Even I do the math. I search for a 7:20, 7:30, and nothing until 8:10. Inside me, something inflated pops.

“I—,” he begins.

“I know,” I say. “Me, too.”

.  .  .

Finally, it’s quiet. The nurse and I wrangled Robert into bed, and she gave me that look, the one that signals I’m not coming back to this hell fuck shit hole ever again.

Trust me, I’ve seen it before.

Robert thrashed and swung his good arm. He yelled and swore his awkward swears, but then he finally allowed us to bathe him and put him to bed. The way he falls asleep now reminds me of when he used to drink, the sudden, deep crash into silent, immobile unconsciousness.

“I saw some of your food in the fridge,” the nurse said before she left. “It’s too chunky. I showed you how to puree. You need to worry about him aspirating that.”

I turned to her and saw that she was giving me her last piece of good advice.

“Thanks,” I said, closing the front door behind her.

Now my hands are deep into soapy water, and I’m washing all the dishes from the entire day, from breakfast to dinner and in between. Outside, I hear nothing, no cars, no whine of streetlight, no crickets, though it must be cricket time. Once, back when Sean was a baby, back in the time before it all started, a cricket somewhere in our backyard stayed alive for months, sawing away all through December. It was the early winter after the Oakland Hills fire, our house just on the edge of the evacuation zone. On a bad day, we could still smell char, and the drive down Highway 13 and up onto 24 was like passing through a smoldering war zone.

Maybe something happened to cricket eggs or crickets in the conflagration, but this hardy cricket was the lone survivor, a fire cricket, a sad summer guitar amidst the Christmas carols.

Now I pause, wait, and nothing. Not even a crazed, fuzzy moth batting up against the screen door.

I pull up the plug and the water swirls down the drain. I wipe down the counters, the dining room table, and sweep all the floors. Just as I’m putting away the broom, my phone rings with Tony’s special ring, and my heart does a wild beating thing against my ribs, a one two, pound pound.

I want to cry. My sweet Tony, wanting to stay at home instead of going to college. My sweet, sweet boy who said, “Mom, I’ll go. But you come with me. Just please come with me.”

I don’t answer the phone. I can’t.

.  .  .

Outside, as I sit on the curb across from the house, I remember the day of the fire. We’d spent the afternoon on College Avenue, strolling past the restaurants and popping into the stores, Sean bundled up against a wind that I realized wasn’t cold but warm, pushed over Mt. Diablo, whooshing all the way past San Francisco, an off-shore flow.

Robert seemed upset that day, angry, and later, I would recognize his behavior as the beginning of the cycle, the signal that my life was going to get a lot worse before it got better. But that October day, I could still imagine that he was irritated because of work or from living with a baby who cried all night long.

“What the hell is that smell?” he said as we drove up Pleasant Valley Road and then turned left on Moraga. “It’s like a campfire, only worse.”

For some reason, I’d been scared to answer, fearing that my first thought—fire—would be wrong. Stupid, even. So I turned to him, smiled, shrugged, but he wasn’t paying attention to me for once, barreling up the hill and pulling over on the side of the road, both of us getting out of the car. Other people were standing by their cars, pointing up at the Montclair Hills, and there it was. The whirring lick of fire, the pulse of smoke, white and gray and then swirling black. All around us were the sounds of sirens. Overhead, helicopters whapped.

“Holy shit,” he said. “The whole world’s on fire.”

I stepped closer to him, and he reached out for me, pulling me close. His hand was tight around my waist, his grip hard, as if he were worried, scared that I might be lost to the flames.

“We’ve got to get home,” he said. “We might have to evacuate.”

And then he pulled me even closer and kissed me, the way he used to before I got pregnant and fat and dull, the way he did all those years ago on his parents’ porch steps.

“Let’s go,” he said, putting me in the car and checking on Sean who was finally fast asleep. “I’ve got to get you both to safety.”

We drove home, right here, to this same house and watched the news for the rest of the day, long into the night, waiting for the call to flee. As Robert stared red-eyed at the TV screen, I padded softly into Sean’s room to pack his diaper bag, putting in all we’d need for at least a week: tiny t-shirts, wipes, pants with snaps. But then the winds shifted, and I was so relieved because everything was going to be all right.