Attached is “Blue Ash,” one of the first short stories I wrote during my first week in the MFA program at the University of Washington. I was just 24 years old and still imbued with the sense that the protagonist had to be dark and moody in order to be interesting. While I have long since let go of the more melodramatic elements in my writing, I still find myself fascinated about small incidences that occur on the periphery of one’s life, such as a fire at a nearby house, and the way they can impact and change how one sees the world. Perhaps that’s why so many of my stories are set in cities as something dramatic happens in the urban world every day. Indeed, when I finished my MFA degree two years after this first story was written, I had developed a collection of more than a dozen stories called, City Stories of the Inner Life, set in three different cities: Boston, New York and Seattle.
Over the subsequent 20 years since, I’ve published most of those stories individually, some in revised form, some not. And even now the majority of my fiction and personal essays focus around the urban life and its challenges and small joys.
Naked, Carli Gianelli presses her sweaty face against the broken screen of her living room window. Carli listens to the coarse laughter of the local teenagers who hang out by the green lamppost, dressed in outgrown pants and rough expletives. She listens to the Red Line train as it lurches out of the Savin Hill station on its final run to Ashmont. She listens to the sound of the alley cats, rummaging through the metal garbage cans, the females in heat. Their cries for sex bite at her sweaty flesh. It is a horrible empty sound.
August has erupted full force in Boston, the heat heavy and thick as the black tar melting on the streets. And Dorchester, an old Irish neighborhood with old pubs and old prejudices, is beginning to burn. The old two-storied houses, distinguishable from each other only by the varying layers of cheap paint that cover their matchbox frames, go up as easily as kindling. There has been no rain for three weeks.
So Carli listens also to the wail of the fire engine sirens, a piercing wail that seems to grow louder and louder with every passing night, in a long succession of nights. The fire trucks rush by her house one after another, streaking, screaming comets in the black, starless sky.
The heat and the humidity and the noise and the flashing lights are too much for her. The images come at her quickly, washes of sound that splash primal colors, reds, blues and blacks, fiery shapes, a Kandinsky painting come to life.
Carli runs to her bed, pulling the pillow over her head to drown it all out. She clenches and unclenches her fists, willing the images to dissipate. Finally, exhausted, near dawn, she sleeps.
She awakes thirsty and drawn. She showers, the cold water falling hard against her body. Her senses are scrubbed raw, her vulnerability apparent as her nakedness. She puts on a yellow terry robe.
She doesn’t know what pulls her to the burnt down house; she hasn’t gone to see the others. But she knows where this one is, three blocks from her own dilapidated apartment. She simply follows the smoky smell of ash.
She looks at the house’s charred skeleton and tries to remember what it had looked like when she passed it on her way to the train station, some special characteristic. She thinks it had been white with yellow shutters. She wonders for the first time who had lived there. If they had a cat. If they had been happy.
She hadn’t really paid much attention to it before. And now the house is black, not blue black or matte black, just black; the bright heavy flames of the fire had devoured all color.
Carli Gianelli is twenty-three-years old and she believes in color. Color to fill in the vulnerable spaces, to fill in that gray area where her father had once been.
She had been fourteen when he had the heart attack back home in New York and she hadn’t been there. She was away on a school trip — a two-day field trip to see a special exhibit of American painters at the Fogg Museum up at Harvard. It was early evening when the school bus pulled away from the museum and turned down Memorial Drive towards the turnpike and home. Carli had looked out the small seat window of the bus and seen the Red Line crossing over the Charles. And beyond the river and the bridge and the train was a dusky sky, starless and royal blue.
At her father’s funeral in Brooklyn Heights three days later, all she could see was that wide expanse of blue. But now she is fully grown, an art school graduate, and has come once more to Boston — this time to live. Her mother had said only one thing to her the day she left New York.
“You should wear a dress, Carlotta. Go change into a dress. For a new city, you should look nice.”
Carli looks at the burnt house and thinks that the house had once looked nice.
Taking out a newsprint pad and charcoal sticks from the portfolio under her arm, she begins drawing the colorless house. But instead, faces begin forming under her hands, bits of furniture, a swing set. Her mind moves as quickly as her fingers, giving the faces names, conversations, spilled milk on the floor.
She invents lives for them, how a couple had first met, the day a first child is born, broken toys, Halloween costumes, school bullies, a funeral procession. By the time she arrives at the Faneuil Hall café where she works, they are old friends to her. And while she waits for her shift to begin, for her station to fill up, while she waits for the diners to choose their entrees, then waits for the order to come up, and finally waits for her customers to leave so she can gather up her tips, she wonders what will happen to them all, to the invented family and to her.
“Hey, Carli. Yo, Carli.”
It is Margaret, one of the other waitresses. Carli blinks at her, surprised back into awareness.
“Geez, are you in orbit, or what?” Margaret says. “Here. I found this on one of your tables. A customer must have left it.”
She hands Carli a cigarette lighter, “I bet they’ll be back for it.”
“Thanks,” Carli says, slipping it into her waitress uniform pocket. “I’ll give it to the manager before I clock out.”
“Sure,” Margaret says. “Hey, hung over, huh? You look funny.”
“It’s hot,” Carli says.
“Tell me something else,” Margaret says and goes off to clean her station.
Carli sits on one of the bar stools to close down. As she pulls tips from her apron pocket, the lighter falls to the floor. She bends down to pick it up, looking at it for the first time.
It is a butane lighter, rectangular, shiny silver all around. It is smooth to the touch, sleek. In the center, in fancy letters, the initials KHS. A woman’s lighter.
Carli flicks its ribbed metal head. A flame bursts out, yellow and gold. She stares at its fluid, seductive dance. And then, as one mesmerized, she slowly, slowly brings the flame to the palm of her left hand. She holds it there. She doesn’t move.
“Don’t do that!” Mark Soldano, the manager, knocks the lighter out of her hand. “Are you crazy or something?”
The lighter falls onto the wooden bar. Her left palm throbs painfully.
“You should put some butter on that,” Mark says. “Get some in the kitchen.”
Carli just nods.
Mark picks the lighter up from the bar, “Some people came in looking for it. Wait, I’m going to give the damn thing back and get you some butter. Don’t leave, okay?”
“Okay,” Carli says. Her hand is beginning to hurt like hell.
“You’re a queer kid,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”
The butter is slapped onto white cardboard squares. Mark peels the paper tops off them and massages them into her palm.
“Feel better?” he asks.
“A little. Thanks.”
“You should probably get someone to take a look at it,” he says. “You don’t want it to blister.”
“No, I’m fine. Really,” she looks at him, her eyes meeting his. “I suppose you want an explanation?”
“No,” he says. “I want to take you to dinner. I noticed you aren’t scheduled to work tomorrow, so if you don’t have plans, maybe we could go then?”
“Tomorrow?” she says. “Sure, tomorrow’s fine.”
He takes her to a restaurant in the North End, one of those places that has only four tables, takes only cash, and serves only calamari. Carli wears a dress. The waiter serves them red wine in oversized glasses.
“Listen,” Carli says. “About my hand. I just wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t crowded and the tips were bad, so my mind was sort of wandering. It was stupid, that’s all. Just a stupid mistake.”
“What do those dark eyes of yours see?” Mark asks.
Carli winces at the come-on, but feels she still has to explain. After all, he is her boss.
“I just don’t want you feeling sorry for me,” she says.
“Are you forty?”
Mark laughs, “Forty-one. Why?”
“Just wondered,” she says. “By the way, I see what everyone sees.”
“When I was ten, my father took me to a concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a chamber concert, a piano and a flute. The piano was a Steinway. A black concert grand, with an open top. Gets more resonance that way. I don’t know, maybe it was where we were sitting or how they set up the lights, but the inside of the piano was reflected on the open top, and I could see the wire strings move and vibrate while the musician played. I wanted to crawl inside the piano and see what each key felt like when it was struck. Does an E feel differently than an A?”
“I don’t know.”
“The scientists have a theory about strings. The premise is that the Universe is composed of these super strings that connect and intertwine, controlling all natural forces. The strings are much smaller than an atom than an atom is to the entire solar system.”
“Are people super strings?” he asks. “Connected?”
She looks at him then, amazed at herself, or perhaps at him, that she has said so much to him in so short a time.
“You’re not from Boston,” she says.
He tells her then what it was like growing up down there, what he had thought and felt. After college, a friend of his got sick and asked him to take over managing his bookstore. It grew so much that it became a chain. So he bought a restaurant, a quiet little place. Within two years that too was successful.
“So I sold it. The challenge was gone once I had gotten it on its feet. After that, I worked with runaways for a while.”
“Ah,” she says. “Thus the dinner invitation. I don’t need a half-way house.”
“You don’t trust me.”
Carli says nothing.
“I’ve watched you at work. You do your job okay, but you don’t fit in there. You haven’t from the beginning. I wanted to know why. And then your hand…”
Carli says nothing.
“My wife died in my arms when I was thirty-four,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s just nice to have someone to talk to.”
She knew suddenly that she would let him have her, just as she now knew why he was running a cheap café for tourists. It didn’t matter whether it was that night or the next. He would have her for a while. It was inevitable. Grief was the recognition between them.
“Is there any dessert?” Carli asks.
He says he knows a great place for gelato. They walk there, winding through the old tiny streets of the North End.
“What street is this?” she asks.
“Moon Street. I like that.”
“It intersects with Sun. I live here.”
She stops under a street lamp. She pulls at his shirtsleeve, “Please. No games.”
Mark takes her left hand and looks at the palm. The skin looks red and incredibly tender under the harsh phosphorescent light.
“Why did you try to burn yourself?”
She pulls tighter on his shirt, “Please.”
He lets go of her hand, “No games.”
His apartment is on the third floor. It is a spacious, expensive one-room studio, with an old brick fireplace. There is a thick, heavy Turkish rug. All the furniture is antique. The room smells of Lemon Pledge. And of men’s aftershave. The kitchen alcove is filled with the most up-to-date cooking equipment.
Over the fireplace, the portrait of a woman hangs. The woman is sweet-looking rather than pretty, her long blonde hair thin, and her lips too full. It is not a very good painting. Carli looks over at Mark. There is gray in his beard.
“So,” she says. “Tell me about your wife.”
The heat wave continues. The bulldozer comes and begins tearing down what is left of the burnt-out house. Carli’s hand heals quickly, without scarring. Every morning she goes up to Harvard Square and draws the life she sees.
Harvard Square is a sociological phenomenon. People who in any other place would have nothing to do with each other all find a haven on Brattle Street. The homeless, the yuppies, the students, the tourists, the teenagers who chew gum and talk fast, all sit in the Square and watch each other. And listen to the street musicians.
There is a rumor circulating that summer that the City of Cambridge is going to ban all electronic instruments from Brattle Street. The nightclub owners say the musicians take away their business. The condo owners say there is too much noise. The University is uncharacteristically silent on the issue. So the musicians play extra hard that summer, playing for their supper, their rent, playing for the sheer sake of having an audience. The music, like the people, all mixes together, as though it was caught inside a giant soap bubble. The reggae band stage themselves underneath the green Bailey’s Ice Cream sign, the electronic flute player two doors down by the Coop. There is the Benjamin Franklin Glass Harmonica player, the string quartet, the folk guitarist, and the accordion player who wheezes out Rose Marie and the Beer Barrel Polka.
There is the mime in white face and the black storyteller who wears a painted rainbow sash and tells the story about the women in red.
“You see, you see, you see,” he says to the audience of five or ten or one. “It was Haiti and I was black and she was white and she wore red. I mean, I mean, it was a flaming red dress, with a little shoulder do-jab on the side and spiked heels. She walked into the bar and smiled at me. When she smiled that little do-jab on the shoulder sparkled. I knew, yes, I knew we was destined for something great. Like in the stars. You see, youseeyousee, red means life. I wanted some life. So like I said she wore red and we was destined.”
Sometimes while Carli is sketching, drawing the storefronts and the traffic and the faces, the rapt faces, the arrogant faces, the laughing faces, the lost faces, she thinks she is stealing. The street performers are giving something and there she is taking it away—trying to capture it, stealing an eye from one person, the lips from another, the shine of an instrument. But then she looks at the Haitian storyteller, at his painted paper sash, at his wild halo of hair, and feels he would understand.
She never fills the colors in until she gets home. Mixing oils on her palate, she looks for the blue that is Boston’s color. She feels it is there, lurking beneath the surface of her canvas, reflected in the tall glass windows of the Prudential Building, and in the clothes of the sailors who rent boats at the MDC. But the color never seems to reveal itself to her. And so she continues journeying up to Harvard Square, searching.
Mark takes her out every night after work. But she always insists that he take her home afterwards, even if it is three or four in the morning.
She then walks through her apartment, pacing the slanted wooden floors. In comparison to his studio, her aging place seems bigger than ever and the few possessions she owns smaller. She has never really thought about it before. That she is poor. She has never invited him in.
One night he gives them both a holiday from the café and takes her to Symphony Hall.
“Did you like it?” he asks.
“Yes, but you watched me more than the performance.”
He smiles, “Come on. Come to my place.”
Carli sits by his window and looks out onto the city. From his apartment, she can see all of downtown.
“You always sit there,” he says. “Boston’s not going to change overnight.”
“It’s safe here,” she says. And realizes that is true. And realizes that she doesn’t want to be safe anymore. She doesn’t need him any longer.
“We’ve made love almost a dozen times,” he says. “You lie in my bed and you let me hold you, let me love you. But you never touch me. Not once. Carli? Carli, are you listening?”
From the window, Carli can see the Hancock Tower, Boston’s tallest skyscraper. The tower light is on, alerting the planes that fly into Logan Airport of its presence. The light is a rich, shining blue. Carli watches it, her heart beating in rhythm with its blinking flash. She watches it for a very long time.
She walks over to where Mark is sitting and runs her hand through the gray in his beard. She feels she owes him that before she ends it. She had been listening.
It’s raining,” she says. “Cool day tomorrow.”