It was better than Mr. Sal expected, the subfloor only showing in one spot through the blackened carpet. The family was lucky; the fire blazed without anyone home, and help arrived immediately. He thought fire departments, like everything else, were better now than when he was a kid.
Ten people from the neighborhood showed up to help clean — more than for his wife’s funeral. He organized this cleanup group on behalf of neighbors he didn’t even know, shuffling around for days, knocking on doors and explaining the need to get the house ready for repairs with moving furniture, packing away trinkets, and washing soot-covered walls.
Mr. Sal even brought a dozen cardboard boxes from his own basement to the cleanup; his wife’s stuff had sat idle in them, and he felt it was time to empty those boxes. He hated seeing her things organized in cardboard in the same manner as Halloween decorations or springtime flowerpots, because her packed-away things weren’t seasonal; they wouldn’t switch out with other boxes of her treasures when months passed. They were final, and that killed him.
As the younger neighbors whipped around the house lifting heavy boxes and flexing their muscles, Mr. Sal just tried to prove he served a purpose. He actually knew about fires, but the neighbors didn’t trust his worth, nor did they see how much helping in the aftermath of a fire meant to him. They only saw his slow pace and the way his back hunched over so far that if he hung his head, his body shape resembled the cane he refused to carry. And they all moved about too fast. He’d planned on the cleanup taking several hours, and he wanted it to.
His father was a fireman, and a young Sal pictured himself becoming one too, until the flames took his father along with his little-kid ambition. Ever since his father’s death, the flickers of fire haunted him while he slept. He’d dream that he ran into a burning house and saved an entire family, even bravely bolting back in to retrieve the dog. Even though the recurring dream made him a hero, he’d wake up from it sweating and dry-heaving over his bedside. Those dreams stopped when he married Catherine.
“Hey can someone help me move this end table? It’s solid,” a much younger man yelled.
“I got it,” Mr. Sal responded before anyone else could.
The younger man watched him waddle over with his rounded back, suspecting this wasn’t a good idea but said nothing of it.
“Ready for the weight?” the younger neighbor asked.
“I got it.”
Mr. Sal wheezed as he inched forward, his shoulder blades cracking and his frail elbows threatening to snap, but he made it all the way to the garage. When he placed the table down, he threw all of his weight over it. A tingly feeling surged up his fingers and, like a lit fuse, burned through his arms and up to the top of his head. When the lightheadedness passed, Mr. Sal wiped his face with his hand.
Not that it would’ve made much difference, but he kept wishing he slept better the night before. He jolted awake at 3am after he dreamt of an alternate version of his wife’s funeral where no one showed up, and he stared into her casket knowing it was his fault. Dreams always haunted him, and he never had nice dreams — at least he never remembered the nice ones when waking. After tossing and turning for a while, he’d left his bed and hobbled through his dark house into the kitchen. He then turned on only the dim light over the stove and mixed up waffle batter from a box. He wanted the house to smell like them. Although that scent didn’t mimic any of Catherine’s baking, he thought the smell would make it feel as if more lived there than just himself, a feeling he needed after that dream. Versions of the funeral dream had happened a lot lately, as his nighttime waffle-making response to it.
The younger man thanked him for his help with the end table as Mr. Sal adjusted his glasses. This acceptance was welcomed and needed, as the old man didn’t know these people at all even though he lived among them. But he heard them; in the summer evenings, the shrills of childhood and the distant laughter of mildly tipsy adults traveled through his bedroom window screens as he lay alone. Their noise reminded him of how Catherine always wanted to fill their backyard with picnic tables and children. He’d only given her one kid before she began her first battle with cancer. Throughout the ups and downs of her fights, he’d dream of a dining room crawling with kids — some sitting two to a chair, but they never answered when he talked to them, as if he spoke a different language. Catherine later altered her wish to a backyard full of grandkids, but she died before her son could give her that too.
“I think we’re about done,” one of the neighbors said.
Mr. Sal cringed at the thought of going home. His heart had soared so high from this work that his back straightened up a full inch. He didn’t want it to end.
“Anyone hungry? I can order pizza,” he said to the group, not noticing their sideways glances as he pulled out his cell phone.
“You’ve done enough,” someone responded.
“I insist. You all can hop over to my yard. I just had two picnic tables delivered last week for out back.” He squinted at the numbers on his flip phone, locating a new pizza place he recently added on speed dial. “Everyone like pepperoni? Plain? What do you all want? I bet your kids like plain.”
“It’s fine, really,” a woman said.
He ordered anyway.
A few people went home, but six adults walked over to his backyard and brought their kids along. He smiled at the view of two picnic tables filled with boisterous adults and kids playing on his lawn, staring at the activity so the picture would hold vividly in his brain.
“Sweetheart be careful!” his neighbor, Teresa, scolded her little girl after she knocked over an entire can of soda.
“It’s okay. I’ll get more napkins,” Mr. Sal said.
“Do you want me to get them?” Teresa asked, thinking that the steps leading inside were too much for him after the cleanup.
Mr. Sal refused her help and climbed the stairs, his knees red-hot. He thought he was hosting well — nothing like his wife, but well.
“You have red hair just like my wife did,” he said to the girl as he wiped up her mess.
The shy girl smiled back with half of her mouth.
“You know why she had red hair?” he asked her.
The little girl shook her head, letting her pigtails brush her face as she swung them around.
“She said there was too much fire within her that it started to escape through her head.”
The girl giggled.
The sun fell to the tree line in the distance, and Mr. Sal hurried to tell more stories about Catherine, as if the more he said her name, the more her presence lived. He knew the dimming sky limited his time, but there was another important story he wanted to tell about her, that he needed to tell about her, yet he couldn’t remember it while he had the audience.
“I loved the way she kept her garden,” Teresa said.
Mr. Sal smiled at the image of Catherine’s ungloved hands in dirt, thrilled that someone appreciated that.
The sun sunk deeper into the horizon, and Mr. Sal wished it’d stop dropping so quickly. He noticed the neighbors glancing at one another as if it was time to go, but he wasn’t finished talking about Catherine. He needed more time to remember that story about her. What was it?
“I can run to the store and get beers or wine coolers or whatever you guys want,” he said.
But the neighbors refused, thanked him, and took their noisy children home.
As soon as his aching body hit the bed that night, he remembered her story. He struggled out of bed to get a notepad and pen, using the wall to stabilize his burning-sore joints. He wrote it down and thought he could tell Teresa when she waited at the bus stop Monday morning. Or, he could tell Sam when he saw him walking their dog as he often did. These people had names now, and he did too.
He lay back in bed, thinking of the other people in their neighborhood with their windows open that evening — the people who heard their chatter and laughs. He smiled about being part of the noise.
He didn’t dream that night.