Jun 1997

Fire and Light

by Pat MacEnulty

The Lovers by Pablo Picasso

The Lovers by Pablo Picasso

My mother struck a match from the glossy white matchbook she had picked up at the rehearsal dinner two nights earlier. The small yellow flame stood straight as a steeple as she brought it to the end of a Winston she had begged from the best man.

"Thirty minutes late," she hissed, eradicating the flame with a sharp snap of her hand. "I don't know why I let you do this." Her cobalt eyes passed across me in my long white gown with the scalloped lace neck. I stared in the mirror as I pinned the mantilla in my dark hair. I had chosen not to wear a veil, and I looked as if I were entering a convent instead of getting married.

"I don't know why, either," I said. Her gaze locked into mine like a deadbolt fitting into place. I hadn't seen her smoke a cigarette in five years. And hadn't seen her upset since I don't know when. She didn't even really get mad when Sneak pawned her typewriter and then swore up and down he didn't do it. She calmly told him if it didn't appear on her desk by the next day, she would have a little chat with his probation office. Not surprisingly, the typewriter showed up. Sneak said he had found the culprits and convinced them to return it.

I turned from her and stared out the window of the choir dressing room into the small concrete foyer outside where I had watched teenagers making out when I was a small girl. I would hide from their view in this very same room. My mother, an avowed agnostic, had been the church administrator since I was a baby, and I knew every secret hidden in every stone of this building. I used to scale the walls, clinging onto the yellow granite blocks, and once I crawled through the ventilation system.

"One week out of high school," my mother muttered. "I had better plans for you."

It was true, just a week earlier the Class of '72 had received their tassles to hang from their rearview mirrors. That seemed all there was to show for the whole 12-year ordeal. I had graduated third in my class, but did not go to graduation, was busy riding the streets and drinking tall boys with Sneak in my yellow Volkswagen instead. I didn't know how to tell my mother I hadn't meant any of this—this getting married, that it was only because my ego was injured when he'd slept with my best friend and he was begging me to forgive him and I was mad at her, my mother, for some reason I couldn't even remember. I had said, yes, sure, and hoped like hell something would come along and get me out of it. Like a kid who takes a dare to spend the night in a haunted house knowing he's not allowed out after dark. Then the invitations were sent out, and the Episcopal church where I had spent all my childhood days was dressed in flowers and someone unrolled a long white runner down the aisle, the apostles and Jesus looking on morosely from glass panes of blue, green, yellow and red.

I looked down the concrete hallway to the gymnasium where I had played basketball with the janitor in the summers while my mother kept watch over the holy coffers. The janitor was my best friend. I was seven years old, fatherless and lived for the fa-toomp, fa-toomp, fa-toomp of the basketball, the rubbery feel of it against my hand and my hair swishing madly around my face and into my mouth as I whirled around the glossy floor and then flung the ball as hard as I could toward the basket, which I almost always missed. Some kids from the neighborhood called me a "nigger lover" and said my mother was a Yankee and she had unfairly won the war. I never believed I was a Yankee. My poor mother from Amherst might still "pawk the caw" but my life was the worship of bare feet, rain puddles, sandspurs, palmettos, giant multicolored grasshoppers and alarmingly pink azaleas smothering the city in spring.

Someone knocked on the door. Sneak had finally shown up, high as the stratosphere, but that was to be expected, I suppose, since Sneak had begun to acquire a substantial heroin habit. My mother leaned over and kissed me drily. I wasn't sure if she was more depressed about my impending marriage or the fact that Sneak's mother was wearing a dress the same aqua color as she wore.

The church where we were married was not an ordinary church. It was established in 1870, just about the time my mother unfairly won the war. At first they built one of those little clapboard chapels which they moved around the area of Riverside until they finally landed on the spot where it is now, and a new bigger church was built. But in the spring of 1901, a terrible fire ignited in a cigar factory in Jacksonville—a hot, blazing church-burning fire. The new sanctuary crumbled to ashes and rubble, but the little wooden chapel by the Grace of God survived the flames, and the Sunday after the great Jacksonville fire, the congregation gathered together in the humble chapel and started over. By 1920 the church had a new big chapel built of dark red brick with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a gymnasium. Later another, more elaborate and ornate sanctuary was built with Tudor arches and carved stone. This was where I stood next to my heavy-lidded groom and swore to love him in sickness and health until death do us part. Prison parted us long before death.

I hadn't even gotten used to the marriage before it was over. But I had the feeling it wasn't much like other marriages. We hardly ever made love. Sneak would say he was going out for a pack of cigarettes and come back five, six hours later, stoned and burning holes in his shirts as he nodded off, cigarette dangling from his fingers, unable to remember my name. Then one day he didn't come back at all. He'd gotten busted with a back seat full of someone else's stereo speakers.

I sat with Sneak's mother in the courtroom. She didn't like me much, and made me feel as if this was all somehow my fault.

"Ten years," the judge said with a bang of his gavel that resonated through my bones. Ten years for a lousy burglary charge? Sneak turned around and looked helplessly at the two of us, his mouth open, pale eyes stricken. My heart crumpled, and his mother clutched my hand, which surprised me, but I guess she had to hold onto something. I was going to miss Sneak's high cackling laugh that shook him so hard he seemed as if he would float away, but I would not miss him as much as his mother would. He was devoted to her. My mother had said that was his only good quality, and you could tell how a man would treat his wife by the way he treated his mother.


After that it was like being a widow. I worked at the Southern Life Insurance Company with my mother-in-law. Southern Life was a giant of an insurance company in a town thriving on insurance companies. Because of the early fire and the yellow fever epidemic before it, life seemed more precarious in Jacksonville and life insurance something they all believed in.

I worked in the mailroom and played nickel poker on my lunch hours with my co-workers. My mother-in-law worked on the seventh floor. I never had to see her during work hours unless I bumped into her in the cafeteria while I was picking up a sausage biscuit with mustard during my morning break.

My boss was a lady who had that dyed-black hair look of someone who went to the beauty parlor every week and wore lipstick so red and dark it looked as if she drank blood instead of cup after cup of coffee. I had never met such an unabashed hypocrite in my entire life. I was awed and amazed when she'd pick up the phone with a scowl, knowing it was someone she despised—and she despised everyone—and then break into smile as pretty as sunrise and say in a melodic voice, "Hello, honey."

Toward the end of August, my mother-in-law got ill and had to take a leave of absence—it was embarrassment over Sneak as much as anything else. But her illness was a boon for me because I got her parking space in the pay lot right across from the building. I would not be late anymore, not be scowled at by those sangria lips as I hurried in, having had to park five or six blocks away and run through the early morning heat to get to the yellow and turquoise square box that was the Southern Life Building. Oh, happy day, as I pulled into that parking lot in my little yellow Volkswagen Beetle and was shown into parking space number 35 between a Lincoln Continental and a Cadillac De Ville by an old guy with a cigar butt wedged between his gray lips.

The old guy had a helper, a young black man who often parked the cars for the patrons. Soon as I stepped out of my car, the helper smiled at me—a real smile, not like the Dragon Lady of the mailroom's smile.

"Don't you work too hard now," he said to me with a grin, and I couldn't help grinning right back.

Every day was like that, except we started talking more and more. His name was Willie and I told him about Sneak being in prison, which nobody at the company was supposed to know, but they all did. Sometimes after just a couple of weeks you can feel like you've known someone since you were in diapers. At the end of the day I would linger and tell Willie about the mailroom, how I hated it, how my feet hurt in the stupid pumps I had to wear. If the old guy was not around, we would share a reefer and gaze up at the late afternoon sky so far, far above as the sunlight slowly drained from the wide blue basin, washing against the bottoms of the soft purple clouds.

None of the buildings around us were very old. Downtown Jacksonville had been obliterated in the inferno of 1901. The fire began at 12:30 in the afternoon and within hours it had become a conflagration. The flames had rushed to the banks of the river like a flock of yellow birds coming in for a landing. By 10:00 PM that night, all that was left of downtown was the shell of the old courthouse, the Astor Building (made out of iron) and the monument to the confederate soldiers, who had lost the war so unfairly to my mother.

Willie kept saying I ought to come have lunch with him someday. At first I put him off.

"I only get an hour, Willie," I said, leaning against the fender of my car.

"You think I'm getting sweet on you. It ain't that. I wouldn't do that to a man who's doing time, try to take his old lady from him," he said, mouth pinched serious and eyebrows close together, stocky compact body like a boxer. "But I know you'd like that food down there. Girl, you ain't had soul food till you've been to the Ashley Street Cafe."

Down on that part of Ashley Street, you never saw a white face. But Sneak used to go there all the time. He had been to the Ashley Street Cafe and said it was "the tits". Sneak wasn't afraid of what anyone thought. He reminded me of my mother in that way.

"You scared to go?" Willie asked.

I shook my head. I wasn't. And I did want some soul food, as long as it was just friendship with Willie. To tell the truth, he felt like the best friend I'd had in a while. There was no one in the mailroom I could talk to.

So one day after sorting mail all morning long, something I showed a natural born talent for, I stepped out of the frosty air-conditioned yellow and turquoise box and saw Willie watching for me across the street. Big Jim, the city whistle, blew out 12 noon in a deep bellow. Funny how you could hear it all over town.

Just seeing Willie made me smile. He crossed over and we started walking towards Ashley Street and the best soul food in town, not minding the tail-end-of-summer heat. I never did mind it, the way it swallows you and won't let you out until you've just about suffocated. Then it's gone, and autumn makes you want to cry.

The kind of soul food I love is cornbread, collard greens and beef stew. In the crowded, sizzling cafe, we sat at a banged up linoleum counter and studied the menu items painted up on the wall above the stoves, where big pots of food waited, steaming and flavorful. Two ladies, one fat with jiggly arms and one skinny, dished up the meals onto thick white plates. They didn't even look at me funny. I sopped my cornbread in the stew gravy, and ate potatoes, carrots and thick chunks of simmering beef. The greens had that sharp vinegary taste that tingles the very tip of your tongue.

"You like this, Margaret?" Willie asked.

I nodded and kept eating.

"You sure you like this food? You don't have to eat it if you don't like it," he said, laughing. "Damn, I never saw a girl eat like you do. And you so skinny, too."

Then I laughed. Some guys teased him about me, and he said, "Aw, leave me alone. She's somebody's lady. We're friends." He smiled down at his neck bones and rice. I nudged him and we both laughed and smirked like a couple of kids who know something nobody else knows. What we knew was we could be friends—white and black, man and woman—and that's all there was to it.

The next morning when I pulled my yellow Volkswagen Beetle into the pay lot across the street from the yellow and turquoise box, I did not see Willie. I did see a shiny Chrysler in parking space number 35.

"You cain't park here no more," the old guy who owned the lot said to me. "We don't allow that here."

"Allow what?" I asked.

"White people don't mix with niggers in my lot," he said.

"Goddamn," I said and just sat there for a moment, my hand on the stick shift.

"Go on," he said. "Get outta here. Willie ain't around here no more either."

I couldn't even hate him; it would have been like hating a brick. Because I figured he was that stupid.

I was late, but I didn't care. I had lost my mother-in-law's parking space, and that meant trouble. And I was lonely. So I started getting drunk with my co-workers after work and I slept with one of the guys—a nice, peach-skinned fellow; no one seemed to mind. Then I started stealing money from the company which is why they tell people never to send cash. If they sent cash to pay their bills, the envelope went straight into my pocket. The Dragon Lady would send me smoldering looks when she thought I wasn't looking, but she didn't know I was stealing. She couldn't imagine anyone ever being more hypocritical than herself. It would have hurt her pride. We just smiled and smiled at each other. Sometimes I could see the fillings on her back molars.

I didn't like stealing the money, but my fingers were unable to resist when I felt that extra weight to the envelope. One day after work, I sat in my car, and pulled the envelopes out from under my skirt where I had tucked them into my underpants since I didn't have pockets that day. I opened the envelopes and counted the grimy dollar bills. What was the point, I wondered, leaning my head against the leather-covered steering wheel. I cursed Sneak for being so stupid and getting sent to prison, leaving me here in this town all alone, this town that felt like ten coats of varnish. Then I knew something. I needed to find Willie. He could use this money. At least I still had a job.

My car crawled along Ashley Street. I stared at the faces, some smiling, some scowling. No one looked familiar. I drove around blocks, cruising slowly wherever I saw a group of people, but I realized I didn't really know where he hung out, who his other friends were. All I had known was a smiling face. I drove in circles, getting dizzy from the heat and carbon monoxide. Finally, I parked in front of the Ashley Street Cafe, got out of my car and peered inside. It was closed, empty, gloomy, haunted feeling. People walking by looked at me in my little work outfit and pumps from the corners of their eyes. My shoulders slumped down, my hair hung around my elbows. I threw the dollar bills like so much old tissue into the gutter, wiping the tears from my face with my sleeve. A group of slick dudes watched me, laughed and said, "That bitch has lost her mind."

I got back in my yellow Volkswagen and swore I'd never go back to work at Southern Life again.

I moved out of the garage apartment where Sneak and I had lived for six whole weeks and back in with my mom. I hung around the swimming pool at her apartment complex where I ran into guys from the navy with oily accents who wanted to flirt and have sex, but I could never get past those accents. So I flashed my diamond at them and said my husband was coming back from out of town any day now.

My mom and I sometimes went out for dinner to a little Italian place with the requisite red-checked table cloths and candles in old Chianti bottles. Jacksonville had once been called Cowford and was founded by a 30-year-old man named Isaiah Hart, she told me once as we rode across the sleek new bridge arching over the St. John's named after him. When you drove over that bridge you could smell coffee from the Maxwell House plant and see the most painfully beautiful sunsets, sunsets that reminded me of the Bach cantatas I heard at church.

"How come you never went back north after Daddy died?" I asked one night, picking absently at the wax on the Chianti bottle. Yellow fingers of candle light stroked her face. I had never asked that question before, never wondered until now. I couldn't even remember my father. Now it seemed like a sin she had kept me here.

"I don't know. I had a job, and being a woman, it wasn't so easy to get a decent job back then. I was trapped here by money just like you got trapped by that marriage," she said and sent me a look full of broken glass. She wore a gold medallion like a shield over her heart.

"I'm not trapped," I answered.

"The hell you aren't," she said.

I stared across the table at her, the wavy dark hair falling to her shoulders, the high forehead and long thin nose.

Hot wax dripped on my hand, and I yanked it away.


One day I went over to the church to see my mother, for gas money or something. She'd gone off on an errand, so I wandered around the church, through the hallways and up the stairs into the library—a room with oriental rugs, thick red velvet curtains and a ceiling two stories high. No wonder people thought I acted rich. I had grown up in a castle.

I wandered into the next building. In the gymnasium I heard a fa-toomp, fa-toomp, fa-toomp. I looked in. There was a man, skin dark brown-red and hair a light brown-red. I knew him. His name was Lucius, and he had been one of Sneak's crowd in high school before Sneak became a junkie. He shot at the basket, missed and then saw me. We stared at each other for a long time.

"You the new janitor?" I asked.

He nodded. I came in and we shot hoops all afternoon.

I had never made love to a black man before Lucius. We treated each other like virgins and were as tender as two doves. I stayed with him in his upstairs apartment the church provided in an old house just across the street. I parked my car several blocks away, so my mother would not know where I was. I did not want anyone to know where I was. I was in hiding. From the world. I had no cash so I had to pawn my ring. I didn't need much money. Lucius usually fed me breakfast—hotcakes, sausage, paint-thick coffee—and we had Fritos, onion dip and Schlitz malt liquor for dinner. At night we danced in his apartment. He taught me the fox trot and the Charleston. I imagined we looked like a couple in an old black and white movie, hands clasped, twirling around each other like the stripes on a candy cane.

From Lucius's bedroom window, I could see my mother arriving to work in the mornings. But I stayed locked away in the apartment, watching soap operas. I knew I was supposed to do something with my life. I was 18 and a high school graduate. I was supposed to work or go to college or have babies or something, but I didn't know what. I was a married woman without a husband. Mainly I spent my time missing my childhood and wishing I could re-enlist.

Lucius wasn't much of a talker except late at night as we lay in bed with the light of a streetlamp casting a bluish hue across our skins. Then he would remark on my ears or my fingertips or the way my nose turned up at the end. "You got skin soft as rose petals, babycakes," he told me. "Soft as rose petals." His voice—smooth and rich as melted ice cream—gave me goosebumps.

"You know," I told him one night, "one time my girlfriend and I took some acid. We were only fifteen, I guess. And we were outside this strip shopping mall. Anyway, we set fire to a bubble gum wrapper. Then we dropped it and before you know it, the whole side of this creek is up in flames. We freaked out. The weird thing is nobody else seemed to notice we had set this brush fire. No one called the fire department or anything. The fire just finally burned itself out."

Lucius was silent for a minute. Then he said, "You shouldn't be taking drugs, babycakes. Look at what happened to your old man."

"Yeah, I know," I said. "We were just bored."

The next day my mother did not show up for work. She didn't go a second day either. Finally, I got dressed and went over to her office.

"Margaret," the receptionist said, wetting her old cracker-dry lips. "Your mother tried to find you everywhere."

"I was out of town with some friends," I said.

"She had an emergency business meeting at the Diocese main office. Some money was embezzled from the bishop's account, and your mother is the only one smart enough to straighten it all out," the gray-haired woman said, twirling a pencil up in the air. "I think they want her to come work for the bishop."

I didn't say anything.

"She left something for you," she added and handed me an envelope. I walked outside and opened it. Divorce papers and a note saying all I had to do was sign. My marriage certificate was also in the envelope. I guess she was giving me some sort of choice. The church hovered at my back.

I went back through the office building and through the alcove where the teenagers used to make out. I opened the heavy wooden side door to the Sanctuary. It was so quiet, the deep smell of old stones and velvet kneeling pads as familiar as the smell of my own skin. I still had the papers in my hand as I wandered up and down the pews in the soft colored light. I had played so many lonely days in this cavernous sanctuary, pretending to be a princess or a pirate while the organist practiced next Sunday's anthem.

I walked up the steps leading to the altar area and into the enclosed section where altar boys and priests usually went about their business delivering communion. There was a water spigot for holy water, and a silver chalice and tall pillars of white wax in wooden candle holders carved in the image of angels. I saw some matches by one of the candles. They felt just right in my hand.

I took the matches and knelt before the altar. It was draped in a heavy white linen cloth. Jesus Christ towered above me, hands outstretched in the resurrection pose, bright red pieces of glass in his palms. I struck a match and lit the marriage certificate. It flamed brilliantly, paper crackling and shriveling into blackness. The fire reached up, smoked and then consumed itself. I went to the little spigot and poured water into the chalice. I annointed the last of the embers. Then I heard a noise and turned around.

"What the hell you doing, babycakes?" Lucius asked, hands on hips, big amber eyes studying me.

"I'm getting unmarried," I answered.

He snorted and then said, "Let me get you something to clean up that mess."

When he came back with the broom and dustpan, I told him I couldn't stay in Jacksonville any longer.

"Why not?" he asked. I noticed sweat trickling across the pores of his beautiful red-toned skin.

"I don't mean with you," I said, sweeping up the last curls of wet charred papers into the pan. "I can't stay in this town. This place where everything is north or south, black or white, this or that. I'm sick of the smell of the paper mill and seeing the used rubbers floating in the river. I want to try something new. I want to do something all on my own."

We walked outside. The smell of indian summer hung in the oak trees, musty like the Spanish moss, dry like the palm fronds, and laced with an exquisite sort of pain.

I gazed at Lucius, the soft lips, thick curl of lash.

"You want to come with me?" I asked.

"No, baby," he said, "I got a good yoke here. I can't leave. This is my home. Besides, if I went you wouldn't really be doing it on your own."

I nodded and stared down at my feet, at the pink-painted toenails, the leather sandal straps, the blue veins, the bone ridges and pale skin.

"Bye, Lucius," I said. He leaned over and kissed my cheek. I thought about Willie and hoped like hell Lucius wouldn't get fired from the church for that kiss.

Later that day after I sold or pawned all my wedding presents, I left a note for my mother on her office desk, telling her I had gone to seek my fortune. I told her I would write when I had an address. I signed the divorce papers and left them there, too. Then I got in my car and drove off. I pulled onto the interstate and headed west.

During the great fire of 1901, smoke could be seen as far away as Raleigh, North Carolina. I wasn't looking back so all I could see was the blue sky, the yellow light of the sun, and the long gray road like a river of mercury before me.


Pat grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and now lives in Tallahassee. She has a doctorate in English from Florida State University and runs a drama program for incarcerated women at Jefferson Correctional Institution in Monticello. She recently completed a novel, entitled Naked In Blue, and is looking for a publisher. "Fire and Light" is part of a collection of stories about living in Florida. She was awarded an Individual Fellowship from the Florida Arts Council on the basis of this story.