With dad dead the days for Jolly and me level completely. Now not only do we live on flat land, we live in flat land. No high expectations to buoy us, no disappointments to be turned into brighter future possibilities. Death deals its blow. We land on our backs at the bottom of some nebulous monotone.
Mom moves us one town over from that house in Sherman Oaks into a much smaller place in Studio City. We live in an apartment building near the banks of the Los Angeles River; a man-made cement waterway created years previous to circumvent floods. A family lives above us. We hear them walk and flush their toilet. Our front door opens and faces another front door just like ours. The only thing different about our neighbor’s door is the number on it. There’s an identical building across our courtyard where Jolly finds friends. All Jolly’s friends are my friends. I am his shadow. He leads all of us in made-up plays he creates. He’s growing into a short version of dad. Same dark curly hair same face shape.
We cross the street to the barbed wire fence that travels the length of the LA River and peer down. What do we see? Gray concrete, some green escaping through its cracks and a trickle of water sitting stagnant at the river’s lowest level. I think we look for lizards or just wait to see if anything moves.
Each night mom lets us bring buttery warm toast to our beds. Jolly enrolls in a new school. At almost five years old, I’m not yet eligible to attend, but I’m old enough to tag along with mom to visit her friends.
One friend, a man, lives in downtown Los Angeles on a wide street. This friend is an actor who runs a theater. After noticing the looming old houses with their front porches and window overhangs, I want to see inside of one. But mom bypasses other parts of her friend’s house and leads us straight into his kitchen, which is as big as a living room. There’s a round dining table across from the sink and the space in the middle has enough room for two more exactly like it.
Freshly baked cookies are on the table where I am told to sit. I get a whiff of vanilla and chocolate. Mom whispers in my ear that I need to wait to be offered one.
Her friend’s too busy to notice how much I want one of his cookies. He’s talking about his theater. He leans against the sink and wrings his hands as he speaks. His shoulder jets up and touches his ear as his voice rises. Soon friends of his arrive with their son, my age. Their kid is blond wiry and jittery, like he swallowed a bouncing ball. He grabs a cookie off the plate, without asking and smiles at me. The kid’s mother has red hair and is loud. The kid’s father’s eyebrows are as thick as a mustache. When he walks over to the sink to fill a glass with water, he turns profile and his eyebrows stick out from his forehead. An insect could land there and nest. I think maybe several already have.
Everyone talks about the theater. I watch how mom’s polished nails flick the ashes off her cigarette into an ashtray. She laughs animated.
The kid asks about a house next door to the house where we all are. It sits on the back end of a vacant lot and is where the props for mom’s friend’s theater are kept. I’m interested in this kid’s way with adults. He seems to know what he’s doing because he gets them to agree to let him show me the house. Even mom agrees.
I follow him through a yard and part of the vacant lot. We enter the house. The first thing I see is a mirror on legs, furs draped on it. Opened suitcases scatter about the floor, each with bright colored costumes spilling out: sequined dresses and men’s suits. We settle into the main room crammed with furniture and boxes of make up. A hat rack dangles hats and wigs from its posts.
I sit on an ottoman. The windows are dirty and dusted over.
The kid paces in front of me and starts talking with accents, pretending he’s an actor. He tries on different hats. He asks me to try on a hat but I don’t want to risk moving from the safety of my seat. I’ve never been alone with a boy without Jolly there with me.
In a lightening fast movement, the kid picks up something from a side table and shakes it against his ear. It makes a scratchy sound. He brings it over to me. It’s a box of stick matches. He lights one then blows it out. Then he lights another and blows it out, too.
“What are you doing?” I say, bracing my legs against the ottoman.
“Playing,” he says.
I look away.
“I got an idea,” he says. “Why don’t you light one of these matches, put it back in the box and see what happens.”
He holds the box out to me.
“I don’t know how to light them,” I say not taking the box.
“It’s easy.” He demonstrates and with one quick strike, lights a match and blows it out. He hands the box back to me.
I think it may not be such a good idea, but reason that the kid thus far has shown he knows what he’s doing so I do what he says. I strike the match and put it inside the box. The matchbox explodes out of my hand and onto an old stuffed chair next to me. I jolt up off the ottoman. The chair burns from the inside out and a thin line of ember ripples over the upholstery. The kid says we need to smother it with some of the clothes lying around. We toss costumes over the chair and instead of stopping it, the costumes ignite into flames, which jump over to a couch inches from where I’d been sitting. Smoke fills the air. Frightened, I see the panic in the kid’s eyes and my fear turns to terror.
The kid and I run outside and go behind a garbage can in back of mom’s friend’s house. Panting and coughing, we huddle together and look on as smoke billows across mom’s friend’s yard. The kid won’t stop talking. Soon I shut myself away in an invisible cocoon and as his voice diminishes, my own emerges. I repeat over and over to never ever listen to what anyone tells me to do.
Firemen in yellow hats drag fat hoses across the lawn to try and save the house. I hear mom frantically calling my name. I can’t come out. I’m guilty. I’m guilty. I look at the kid, the instigator, and despise him deeply. He tells me not to tell what happened. I reiterate my promise to not do what anybody says and take a vow of silence right there.
The fire is put out and mom’s friend’s theater stuff, along with the house, is burnt to the ground.
We see mom’s friend go with firemen to where his house of theater props once was. It leaves an opening for the kid and I to scurry back into the man’s kitchen.
“Where were you?” Mom asks, relief in her voice. I crawl on her lap and cling to her. She knows. I don’t say a thing. Not a word will be spoken from me from here on out.
A fireman walks into the kitchen and squints his eyes at me and the kid.
“That place was a fire hazard,” the fireman says. “All those old rags and chemicals. Good thing no one was hurt.” He tips his hat to me, bends down and asks me if I, or the kid, know how the fire got started.
I shake my head and glance at the kid. His head is down. For the first time that day he’s not talking.