A Scattering of Sparks
by Ann Vrooman
The fire siren is blowing again and I know that the barber down on Lansing Street will leave a customer in the chair while he shoves on his fireman’s hat and jumps onto the truck as it passes his shop. Other men will run out of the market, and the gas station, and the bank. And I know that someone’s house is burning; someone’s life is changing.
I was eight years old when our house in Worcester, Massachusetts caught fire. My father was out delivering milk. We lived over the ammonia tank room of a dairy, and I was sleeping next to my mother in the brass bed in the front bedroom where my father had placed me when he was ready to leave for work. My mother and I might have slept forever if two firemen hadn’t broken the window and carried us outside, wrapped in blankets.
Snow was piled around the back yard as we watched the flames of the fire leap over our roof. All of a sudden my mother started to run toward the back porch, screaming “The trunk… Charlie’s trunk!” She was held back by neighbors. When a fireman came outside dragging a smoldering carpet, Mother screamed at him: “Get my husband’s trunk. You have to get the trunk.”
The fireman shook his head. “If it was in the back room it’s gone. Nothing’s left but the old bedstead worth saving. Sorry, Lady.”
“Don’t cry Mrs. Carlin,” a neighbor lady said. “You and Anna are safe. And Charlie’s at work. And the rest of the house….”
“But the trunk. Oh, my poor Charlie. He brought it from Scotland… on the boat. His own trunk. All he had. Oh my poor soul… it’s gone. He’s gone.” She wasn’t to be consoled. Never had I seen my mother carry on so. My father always said that my mother was the only woman he’d known who didn’t spread her emotions all over the place.
“Oh, Anna,” she said, turning to me. “Your poor father’s clogs. He won’t be able to dance again. All these years he kept them in the old trunk.”
I felt sad, myself. I remembered all the times I’d seen my father taking his black shoes with the wooden soles, out of the trunk, spitting on them, wiping them with his sleeve, saying, “In the old country, Anna, they knew how to judge a dance contest. Under the stage. Here in America they all dance on their bloody flat feet. And they use those bloody steel, nailed-on taps.”
“And his billboard. It’s burned.” My mother was still wailing. She raised her arms as if she held up that wonderful, old, faded, shredded vaudeville bill that creaked and flaked every time my father opened it up and spread it out for the world to see that he was Charlie Nilrac of the “Dancing Aristocrats.” As far as I was concerned my father really was Charlie Nilrac, the Dancing Aristocrat, every time he opened up that billboard, even if he was showing it to some farmer on his route who only had milk on his mind, or maybe that the weather was close to freezing. No, it didn’t make any difference to me that my father once made reeds in a Rhode Island carpet mill, or learned to cut men’s suits with a band knife, or killed rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills for the WPA. It didn’t matter at all that he spelled his name backwards on the stage.
As I looked at my mother with her arms outstretched, I couldn’t help remembering the times she’d yelled at my father: “The first thing you know, Charlie Carlin, is you’ll be ordering your headstone with Nilrac spelled out and I won’t be caught dead under such a stone.”
My father would always say: “Now, Annie, don’t be so against the stage. I promise not to let it swallow me up.” And he’d kiss her.
That was how things really were, so it did surprise me to see my mother so upset over things having to do with the stage. Many times I’d watched her when she was in my bedroom and my father was at work. She’d be opening and shutting that old trunk… sometimes like maybe there was something frightening inside it. Something she looked at but really didn’t want to see. One time, for instance, she took out my father’s old tuxedo that was shiny in other places than the lapels and gave it to the St. Vincent De Paul Society. She explained that it didn’t fit him anymore, and I suppose it really didn’t because Dad didn’t get angry. She even took out his clogs once and I was almost afraid to breathe in case she gave them away, but she threw them back into the trunk and closed it with a bang. I never let on that I saw her in my room that day.
There never was much else in the trunk that I knew about. Well, I do remember there were some ticket stubs for Irish sweepstakes that other people had won, and I remembered her scolding my father for buying such things that she felt were immoral. And there was a falling-apart patchwork quilt my grandmother made and a few paid-up furniture books that she took out every so often to check. Most all our furniture had come at a dollar a week. But to be honest, I had the feeling my mother didn’t really like anything in that trunk, and I have to admit she never did come out and say that she did. And whenever my father opened it to use his clogs or his billboard he did it quickly and quietly.
So you see, it really was strange to see my mother carrying on at the fire.
When my father came home my mother and I were warming up at Mrs. Beard’s house with cups of hot chocolate and home-baked muffins. Mr. Beard owned and operated the dairy and paid my father’s salary. He also owned our house, a two-story flat with us living on the first floor over the dairy. My father talked my mother into crossing the yard to see what damage was done and what was still intact. We went into our home and the smell of smoke was still almost overpowering. The back room was a total mess. My mother cried all over again and said: “Charlie, my poor Charlie, your trunk’s gone…. Your clogs, your wonderful billboard, all you saved is gone.”
My father looked a little odd, I thought, before he smiled. I don’t know if his look was severe, or just careful, or maybe it was a mixed kind of a look I hadn’t seen before on his face. “Wssht, Annie, if we didn’t lose more than my trunk, I’d say we’re pretty lucky. Anna could have been in that bed.”
But Mother still cried while I swallowed pretty hard thinking how lucky I was that my father had moved me out of there.
“Annie, stop acting like I was in the trunk. I’m right here. Now I don’t want to hear another bloody word about the stuff in the trunk.”
“No, Charlie. I know what your clogs and billboard meant to you. More than anything in the world.”
“Don’t talk crazy,” he said. “You and Anna are my world. Now I don’t want to hear one more word. Is that clear?”
His voice was very firm and I was glad. Up ‘til then I’d been confused, to tell the truth. And my mother quieted down too. Believe me, that helped.
“Now let’s have a pot of tea,” my father said. “I brought some biscuits home and I’ll heat a can of soup.” He ran outdoors to return with a paper sack from out of his milk truck.
Mother got out the teapot and caddy and the Salada tea, their favorite. And then said: “Charlie, we do have a bit of insurance. When we got the two leather chairs with the wooden claw feet, I took out insurance at just a few cents a week. I think we might get a little back. Beards will get plenty on the smoke damage.”
My father grinned. “I’ll be. Annie, so you surprised me again. I’m glad I married me a Scotch lass with brains. So what are we worrying about?”
We ate our soup and biscuits and had hot tea. They even allowed me a cup for the occasion. It was a week or so later when I came home from school and heard Mother talking to a stranger. She was telling him how important my father’s dancing shoes and theatrical materials were. The man said: “I understand your sentimental value but no insurance company can set value on such things. Now if you had anything else in the trunk…?”
Mother immediately began to list things in the trunk. Things like: woolen blankets imported from Scotland, tartan kilts Dad would have loved to own, crocheted sheets and Irish linens. A whole parcel of good things she conjured up for the man. I was glad she hadn’t heard me come into the house.
The check from the insurance company arrived within the week. Mother wore a green plaid dress, my father’s favorite. There was apple pie in the oven, a casserole of pork chops and potatoes was on the sideboard. As soon as she heard father stomping his feet on the porch she ran out to hug him. He couldn’t kiss her for her mouth was open and she was too excited. “It’s here, Charlie. It came.” It took a few moments for him to know she meant a check.
“Well, how much is it for, Annie?”
“Look for yourself, Charlie,” she said, taking it from her apron pocket.
“Well I’ll be, Annie. But there has to be some mistake. They couldn’t arrive at such a figure for that old junk.”
“Junk!” my mother shouted. “I listed all the things we lost.”
“But, Honey, an old rocker, a busted up metal bed, an old fabric trunk.”
Mother added: “Pictures on the wall, a mirror belonging to my mother, all the things in the trunk so important. You’ve no right calling it junk.”
He stared at the check. “But four hundred dollars!” He whistled and put the check back into her apron pocket and patted her backside and lifted her over his head, allowing her to slide down slowly against him. She said: “Charlie Carlin… what will the neighbors think?”
“To the devil with them,” he said.
Then she pointed toward me at the window. They came into the house and Dad whiffed the cooking odors and said: “Annie, I hope you weren’t shining up to that insurance agent. Or that he’s coming to dinner.”
“Charlie Carlin, what a thing to say! You’re the only man I ever looked at since I was thirteen years old.”
He twirled her around again, and then she sat down in the big chair and put her hand over her heart. “I’m breathless, Charlie.” She noted the concern in his eyes. “But I’ll be all right. Just give me a minute.” My father motioned me to start setting the table while he checked the oven. Neither of us mentioned my mother’s rheumatic heart condition. I understood that I had no business being born because of three holes in her heart, and only knew because I had two nosy aunts who hinted heavily.
After supper my father said: “One good thing, Annie, I won’t have to dance Saturday night for the Masons. I won’t dance without my clogs.”
“That’s such a shame,” Mother said. But I remembered the times she had complained when Dad had danced for the Masons. “Stick to your own,” she always had said to Dad. My father would kid her and say: “But, Annie, those bloody Knights of Columbus get their plumes in my way.”
“They were going to pay me ten dollars,” Father said. “But they didn’t want me to sing. Now that I’m getting a bit older, a song gives me a breather and I like ‘Barefoot Days’ between taps.”
Mother was quiet but Father didn’t sound convincing. I wanted to tell him to go ahead and dance without clogs. He wasn’t getting old. And I felt Mother looked smug. I didn’t like her not telling Dad about the insurance check and all the things she lied about being in the trunk.
My father looked at the check once more and said: “We have to admit my shoes were worth more burned up in the trunk than they ever were on the stage.” He looked sad, and yet there was a look of wonder on his face, too.
My parents went to shop with their new money, and Mother came home with her eyes glowing and her red hair brighter under a cap that was part fur, and she wore a new coat trimmed with fur at the neck and cuffs. Father’s face was wind red – happy, holly-berry red. He had a new wallet and bright green tie and dress shoes for Sunday. There were two skirts for me and a scarf and hat and angora sweater.
The next day the piano came. I couldn’t believe it was for us. Mother spent the afternoon polishing the keys, and scratches along one side, and a slightly warped stool. “It’s for you and Daddy,” she said. “You aren’t aware of the songs your father composed, Anna. One time he composed ‘The Sunshine Goes with You’ and it was for me. Then he stopped when he finished his ‘Matty’ song. He wrote that for Christy Mathieson, the baseball hero. Someone wrote a better one, he said.”
When my dad came home from work, he sat right down to play us a tune. It was good, and after supper, we three sang “Annie Laurie” and “Coming thru the Rye,” and my father sang “A Wee Dockin’ Dorrie.” After I went to bed I got up to get a glass of water very late, and I saw him leaning over the keys writing notes on a pad. Mother sat next to him with a look of wonderment in her eyes. They didn’t hear me. So my father went on composing songs. He composed songs for two congressmen who didn’t get re-elected. He composed so many songs he broke out in hives. My mother put him into an Epsom Salts bath and while he soaked she’d listen to him sing his latest song. I’m sure he kept breaking out in hives so she’d soak him and listen.
Then later on she’d put his songs into brown envelopes and take them to the post office. After awhile she couldn’t continue to walk to the bus. Her heart was giving her more trouble. We moved to another flat near the church. But my father still delivered milk so they could afford the pew rental of 15 cents and most of the time still have a dollar for the collection basket. The only times I remember father dancing after the fire were the times on a Sunday morning, he’d be coming back from Communion rail, listening to the organ, and forgetting where he was. He might do a step or two of the old soft shoe before he’d catch himself. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever found any old milk farmers with time enough to listen to some song he composed.
Mother lived another five years. My father went through the WPA projects and unsuccessfully tried to talk high schools into letting him teach athletes footwork by tap dancing, but even though he was great in soccer in Scotland when a lad, he couldn’t convince them. It was ahead of their time. Finally he worked in a shipyard for the war building bulkheads and swore at women welders with big behinds, and rough talk, and too many cigarettes. He never married again. “I’ll never find a gal like my Annie,” he said.
In later years he got a security guard job in a bank, wearing a Sam Browne holster crossed over his heart. He worked there until he was 76 and until they discovered he couldn’t hear a thing even with a hearing aid. He blamed that on the shipyard noises and wanted to sue them, but we talked him out of that. He wrote another song, minus his hearing, called “Love Tiptoed into my Heart.” And when the astronauts first landed on the moon, he wrote: “The Heavenly Moon.” He was so glad we beat the bloody Russians landing. He bought himself a little trailer and lived in a court. Finally his trailer caught fire when he was in the park across the street, reading. The manager of the court blamed the Rube Goldberg devices my father rigged up, for the fire, and my husband sort of agreed.
We brought Dad home. I already had a little boy and a child on the way. When I went back to the trailer to salvage what was left I found a metal box under the bathroom sink. I opened the box to see what it contained. In it, wrapped neatly in butcher paper and tied with green ribbons that my mother used once to braid her red hair were my father’s wooden clogs, and underneath the clogs was another package. It felt hard and made a grating sound as I handled it. I knew before I opened it and unfolded it, that once more I would see that faded, wonderful, old billboard of Charlie Nilrac of the “Dancing Aristocrats.”
I brought them home and placed them in my father’s hands, all wrapped again as I had found them. I asked nothing. After all, what was there to ask? How could he tell us that the clogs and billboard hadn’t been in the trunk the night of the fateful fire? Maybe he had them on his milk route again, unbeknownst to Mother, showing them to a farmer who thought only of milk or cold weather; maybe he was trying to sell himself to the Masons for a night costing them ten bucks; maybe he knew Mother didn’t like what was in the trunk and they could go the way of the old tuxedo. And then the check came from the insurance. And then the piano came. And then there were the songs and the hives and the splendor of a new, wonderful kind of love between Mother and Father. The answers were his. Hers? The love was theirs, surely.
Outside my window the fire trucks are returning. The fire is out. The barber will continue his “cutting.” The bank clerk will continue his “telling.” But I still feel that somewhere a life will have changed – even a little bit. A wonderful little bit.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Civilite. Paper is 60-lb. Sulgrave Text, Laid. Cover of unknown stock is dedicated to Neca Allgood who reads all the fine print. Published by Jake Warner and 470 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, MD.