The Future of Fire: Stephanie Powell
Watts (Dr. Stephanie Powell Watts is an Assistant
Professor of English at Lehigh University. She has published
short fiction, poetry and nonfiction in a number of
The day leaves
in pink and gold on Second Street Hill. The hills rise
like pimples shadowing the small town in the piedmont
area of small town North Carolina. The man’s shiny metallic
blue car cruises past us, the grill echoing the glower
on the driver’s face. We have food stamps, 20 dollars
worth, from Kim’s mother and free reign to buy whatever
we desire— cheesy chips, black licorice, pre-sugared
Koolaid and Coke, chocolate candy in bright foil wrappers
glittering like Christmas presents under a six foot
fir. Anything. The car stops a few yards in front of
us before the white man driver gets to the stop sign.
We are used to the looks. We are young, almost women,
skin tight jeans and my 80’s bubble of long, thick hair.
But the man shouldn’t stop not like that. He backs up
to us, says nothing, looks at us with scientific interest--
“a way that hurts us for its raw investigation,” a look
without warmth. Kim takes my hand, “Come on,” she says.
She is older by a year and accustomed to being in charge.
She is also taller than me, a pretty enough face, but
a body with womanly changes: an hour glass frame, nipples
tugging against the cotton of her t-shirt. I am still
fifteen, still a little girl beside her. I am reminded
of another day with an older woman. My Aunt Candy was
on the shortcut to my Grandmother’s, walking briskly
through the tall weeds behind our house. But then a
black snake lay like a fire hose, thick and long, minding
his business. “Look,” I say, dumb as a potato, stopped
like death. I point, confused. The snake was not supposed
to be there. While my aunt walks on, dragging me behind,
10 years wiser to the ways of nature, understanding
immediately that there are some sights better not taken
fully in. She jerks my arm to her, whisks me like a
debutant along the rustling weeds.
We are almost to the grocery store, just steps away
now. This store is run down and tired looking, in the
heart of the small town’s only low-income housing project.
The electric eye that should hold the door for us, beckon
us in, is slow, and makes us impatient. I get a cart
and we wheel around the store. There are ridges of black
from the produce and meat carts on the industrial linoleum.
I imagine that I might have made those marks with the
soles of my shoes, the time a grown man tried to pull
me into the back room, through the ‘Employees Only’
door. We walk quickly past the fruit, at the dairy section;
we briefly consider some refrigerated cinnamon rolls
to cook but there are too few for our hungry crowd of
children, Kim’s four older brothers, two younger sisters,
her mother and the two of us, nine of us in all. Once
we begin filling our cart, we forget about the man and
his car and grab at all the sugar we want. Why not?
We do not yet consider calories or carbs. We have never
even uttered the word diet. We are lithe, thin limbed,
too much for the over 30 crowd with their un-tucked
shirts, sad eyes passing by the Juniors sections in
bright department stores, longing at the tiny jeans
like they were the last bright divine promise, long
lost. We are finished. Five bags between us. She carries
three, though one of mine is light and has only two
cardboard tasting frozen pizzas that have no taste of
care or love in their making.
In the way of stories, we are nearly home. We can’t
yet see the project apartment or any of the long rows
of undifferentiated apartment houses, but we are there.
The sky has turned from pink to a deeper blue and our
shadows are stubby visible along the asphalt. “Get in,”
he says pulling up next to us leaning across the bench
of the front seat. His hair is thin and sweating through
to his scalp. He is older, maybe close to twice our
ages. We keep walking and he matches our steps, his
car creaking like something waking up. “Get in,” he
says, his voice more insistent now. We don’t speak.
Keep our steps together. We are almost home. At the
intersection where the small copse of pines divides
Kim’s apartment group from another, a boy, brown like
us whizzes by on an old fashioned bike. I don’t know
him. How could it be that in such a small white town
I could not recognize another black face? Kim looks
at me. Grabs my hand. “Run,” she screams and we hurl
the groceries, cookies and pizza, ice cream and colas
“Run, run,” she screams and we fly across the street,
not looking back, but hearing the metallic blue car
stop, the engine die, the car door open and slam. I
lose Kim’s hand. I am alone, the crunching of leaves
and branches underfoot, a green canopy of pine trees
blocking out most of the later afternoon light. I can’t
look behind me. If I see the man in the woods, see the
expression on his face, I may never be able to see the
woods again without his face. This I understand without
the words to articulate it. Though this piece of land
between the apartments can’t be wide, I feel that I
have been running for days. Kim’s tiny little apartment
with too many people, too little money, is perpetually
receding in the background. I catch my jeans, my best
ones, on the bark of a stubborn tree and rip them to
my panty line. My screaming brings Kim back to me, jerking
me all the way to the door of her apartment. Our food
is gone, scattered on the road. Kim’s brothers get into
the family’s car. I don’t want to know what will happen
if they find the white man still cruising the street.
There is no lesson to this story, no neat package of
meaning here, except this. If the white man had rolled
down his window, smiled at us, asked us if we wanted
a ride, we’d probably agreed, jumped in the car without
a single care, flattered to be recognized by a real
man. If he’d just asked, we would have looked at each
other, a giggle suppressed under our lips, our shrugs
and “okay sures,” sealing us to whatever fate we had
to find. The white man would know better next time.
Kim and I watch her brothers from the living room window.
The oldest, Billy, yells and cusses, as the rest of
the boys pile into the family car. Long after the car
squeals around the corner, I watch the dark; left in
this place I must get used to finding myself, the girl
who waits for the story to end.