“It’s like I have a burnt spot in my brain. I don’t even know what I know. Maybe you should be talking to someone else.” Clara stops. The TV crew waits. A look flits across her face, her attention has passed behind a screen of smoke.
“Would you like a drink of water?” asks the journalist; a different sort of question.
There is a ripple effect in the clean but shabby motel lobby that is Clara’s breathing space when she has to get out of her room. The sound and camera men check their equipment. A bottle of water arrives and the journalist clears his throat. Clara drinks slowly, welcoming both the wetness and the moment to focus.
It has been different than Clara thought it would be. This man’s approach is far less abrupt than techniques used by the police, but his may be the subtlety of snakes. The police were just like curious dogs.
She reaches for one of the year old magazines on the coffee table beside her, flips a page and then stops. She’s here to be interviewed. She sips more water.
The fire brought her this attention. It’s more than a person should have to bear. She’d lost her sister Lou Ann and her cousin Randall. Their deaths are horrific enough without the questions and the suspicions. And yet this man hasn’t made her uncomfortable; even his celebrity status is forgotten as Clara answers his questions. She feels like he’s a friend, but that might be wrong. She should be an animal too. She should be a rabbit that sits still and does not betray itself. And yet she consented to be here. She looks up. The man who is interviewing her is distracted by the cameraman. Clara allows her thoughts to drift.
Why did she say yes? Randall was training her about newspaper work. Did she say yes to experience a professional interview? And there is discernable professionalism in how the cameraman placed her where the background of his shots would not include the laundry soap vending machine, or the coffee maker with its scummy half pot, or the motel owner as he steps outside for his cigarettes.
She has experience too. Randall had given her tips about interviews; a part of her job training. For example, arrive prepared with three or four questions that might lead in revealing directions. So far she’s fielded two. Perhaps she’s halfway home. But she has no home since the fire. No sister to live with or no cousin that she works for. But she hasn’t lost everything. This is still her childhood home town. She’s been back six months.
She glances out the glass doors past the sign that announces a vacancy. Snow is starting to swirl in the air; she can barely see her door’s number. Her home. Unit number 5. Red Phoenix Motel.
She could tell about her return and how moving back turned out to be moving forward after her divorce.
“So how did you come to be living and working here?” The man asked, the crew and their equipment back under control. Clara is startled after the long silence and how close his question is to her thoughts. And yet she does not answer immediately.
It had been simple. Her cousin Randall mentioned at the family reunion he was hiring at the newspaper he’d taken on as his retirement career. He didn’t know she was sick of the post office where they wanted her to retire. Or that she is sick of her ex-husband and his Swiss Miss. His hands would stray onto the woman’s back and then he would tuck her hand under his arm possessively. It made Clara burn. With envy? With anger?
She clears her throat. “I came home for a family reunion and ended up working for my cousin Randall and living with my sister Lou Ann.” She stops but the man seems to expect more from her so Clara adds;
“It’s no small thing to be offered a job when you need it; it’s hardly newsworthy, even if it did lead to this.”
Clara silently wonders if she’ll ever again have a simple story to tell and then she adds more about the reunion, she can talk about that.
“Some families have reunions all the time, we try for every five years or so. You’d be surprised at how much the children can change in those five years.”
“Do you have pictures from the reunion, perhaps?”
Clara considers this, relieved to have the focus shift to a time before the fire. The pictures are just pictures; why would they be of interest to this national news team? She considers refusing, but her notions turn like the swirl of ashes in a breeze. Why not? She goes to her briefcase, removes an envelope of pictures that Randall had given her. With her back to the TV crew she sorts through and brings out a picture.
“This one. The day was overcast, but the sun shone for this picture.”
The journalist asks if the picture includes everyone; his manner deferential.
“Randall set up the tripod with a fifteen second delay so yes, that’s all of us.” The cameraman angles for a close up but Clara moves her shoulder in his way.
“You don’t have permission to use this.” He moves back.
“You’re right of course,” the journalist intervenes. “We can set something up so those not involved are in diffused focus. Would that work?”
Clara lets this pass. Yes or no to that question implies something. She bends to examine the photo herself. She remembers Randall saying there was a family stamp on most of the children. ‘Just count the kids with green eyes, those with fine straight blond hair.’ He was so pleased with himself for his observations and expected everyone to admire his phrasing. He was special, he was an author.
The phrase family stamp would find its way into some inspirational sugary sap. It got gobbled up though; Randall’s book Small Town Heaven is on the best seller’s list. His death made the headlines because of the book.
Then Clara does see something in the photo, her cousin Randall is on one end of the group and her sister Lou Ann is on the other. Was that evidence of trouble?
“Shall we continue?” The man asks; his voice whisper smooth. “We need your story too.”
Her throat closes; she doesn’t know what to say. What if he asks about Lou Ann? Her sister was bewildered everyday and yet she believed she could interpret dreams accurately. Lou Ann needed help. But instead, their parents had sheltered her, turned her into a recluse. She would see no one for months on end. Who knew what that could do to a person?
He will ask about Randall. Her cousin was a sly one as a child, never to blame for anything but trouble happened around him. No one is that innocent. It wasn’t a stretch to think that his sugary outlook on life was all a smokescreen. And where there is smoke there is fire.
Fire. Clara winces, her mind has returned to the fire, but then it is never more than a hand’s reach away. She looks into the corner of the room at the lino curling from the floor, a mop string caught there. And it’s just below the length of curtain that billows slightly above the heat register. And beside that a small fire extinguisher is hung on the wall. She almost misses the next question.
“So it was at the reunion that you decided to move back. Did you think that it would be paradise?” They both look at the book on the low table- Small Town Heaven by Randall McCrae. That question is a mistake Clara thinks. Never ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no.
But yes, there was an implied promise of peace and quiet. Randall told Clara that her job would be to cover the high school graduation every June, the local fair in July, the pumpkin festival every September, and for the rest of the year, she’d have to invent copy out of the dust on the streets. It was small town and that was all.
“And,” Randall added, “I won’t tolerate sensationalism. Just the facts; but the nice ones. If it is a fire we cover, it will be about the solid citizens on the fire department. And the follow up will be about fire prevention, not the losses endured or some busybody’s suspicions about the cause of the fire or anything else. Think of it this way, I want no story in the paper that couldn’t go into volume two of my book.”
That was editorial bias toward pleasantries, but what was wrong with reality? Clara didn’t ask. That day, Randall who had never smoked, flicked a lighter someone had left behind like another person might click a pen. The flame, as it shot up rhythmically, could hypnotise, Clara thought.
“I was raised here. And certainly time has not stood still. This place is the same as the rest of the world. ” Clara senses she has drifted away from the question, but she can’t remember it. Surprisingly it makes no difference; the camera light is still on, the interviewer continues to gaze at her, he waits to look her in the eye. Is he sorry he’s talking to her? She wants to do better, the urge to talk is strong inside her. Maybe this is how good interviewers get their stories?
Then Clara remembers another tip for the interviewer from Randall. Never assume that you know what someone is thinking. But for Clara that insight is lost as she slips back into the confusion that seems normal to her now. Is it her mind’s reaction to grief? Is it a form of shock?
It was the promise of a quieter life that lured her back. Randall called the newspaper his retirement hobby and Clara adopted the same motto as she dodged questions about her life. There was the intersection when there would be no children. There was the stop sign that ended her marriage. There was the last family reunion when she’d felt a band loosen from her soul. Her old life had her stretched tight but here with her family, she felt comfortable. It was the sign she had been waiting for. And the job and the place to live completed the deal.
It was a wonder now, all this discovering what she thought and how she came to be here. During the year of her divorce and move, so much of that had occupied her thinking. That all stopped with the fire. Just for a moment she tries to have a conversation with her old self, but she doesn’t know how.
Suddenly she senses that everyone is looking at her. Cheeks burning, she struggles for something to say. Finally she asks,
“What are you calling this documentary?”
We have a couple of different options, she is told. Clara waits. She can see the journalist weigh his answers. Finally he said, “The working title is Hell Fires in Small Town Heaven.”
Fires. Plural? There were more fires than just the one that took the life of her sister and her cousin. That this famous man is pursuing his investigation of them is a satisfaction. Did he have evidence? Can he stitch all the fires into one cohesive story? He had a way of uncovering secrets. And he was thinking deliberate acts, as she had.
Randall had laughed about the possibility, when she’d suggested arson.
“What a big city notion. Clara, and her nose-for-the-news, sniffs out an arsonist. Come on.”
Lou Ann hadn’t listened either. She turned away; her face blanched in fear. Clara had not pursued it, embarrassed for she had put herself on par with real reporters. As if. Randall was the one who covered the four fires. Lou Ann was the one who trembled at the mention of flames.
“Why do you think the police consider the investigation to be ongoing?”
“Because they don’t know the whole story.” That’s the only answer.
“What is the whole story, Clara?”
She doesn’t have the answers. And that is because she failed to ask the questions, failed to follow through on things that begged for it, failed to see what she should have seen. Randall had said – if they don’t talk, then it’s your fault. She failed.
She failed Lou Ann and Randall. Listen to the voice as well as the words, he said, and Clara can hear neither in her memory. Listen for what was unsaid. She hadn’t listened. She hadn’t paid attention, nor had she put the story together. What did she witness? What flicker of sense can she ignite now?
The police have been very vague, if they knew more, they weren’t telling her. Perhaps they think her hand is in this. The match thrown into the papers wet with gasoline; when did she see that? At the reunion bonfire? Or in one of her dreams?
Those dreams and her waking thoughts were bleeding together into one big stain. What are the real questions that should be asked? Did Lou Ann set all the fires until Randall tried to stop her? Was Randall the arsonist and Lou Ann found out? Did he set out to kill her and then accidentally succumb to the flames himself?
Fires can bring a primitive justice. Deaths can spring from rage and remorse. Lou Ann, the interpreter of dreams, was no longer alive to help her. Randall can no longer report or philosophize. Clara pictures the three of them, herself, Lou Ann and Randall; three faces reflecting the red of a fire. Two sisters and a cousin; and something else too. The guilty? The insane?
She looks up to study the face of the waiting journalist. Only his profile shows in the half-light that barely penetrates the wavy window glass. On TV he uncovers secrets to expose the truth. She trusts him. How surprising! But true. That is why she said no to the other requests but said yes to him.
And here they are; herself and the journalist, on the verge of understanding. She leans forward. Ask the right question, she silently begs him. She needs to know.