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   by Gayle Brandeis

They give you a cot, thin, and a pillow, thinner. They give you one brown blanket that scratches, and a white sheet under that. That's all I got to my name, plus a jeans jacket and my work boots under the cot, plus the clothes on my back. Everything else burnt up.
     I was at the Unemployment when I heard something about a raging inferno from a radio in a back office. I couldn't hear it real good, I thought maybe it was a new ride at the Six Flags, maybe someone dropped a bomb. How should I know it was my own house raging there on the radio, the whole hill raging, and I didn't have a clue, not until I drove home. Traffic was all backed up and the sky was dark, like it was raining black snow, no two flakes the same. Maybe those flakes were my shoes, my coffee cup, my baseball cap collection, but how was I to know? It just smelled like a bad barbecue.
     When I got there, the fireman asshole wouldn't let me go to my house, he wouldn't even let me go up the fucking street, cause I left my ID at the Unemployment and he couldn't believe I had a house in the hills. My wife, should I say ex-wife, at least soon to be, owns the house, and she looks the part. But she ran off to Amsterdam to, quote, "find herself." She says she thinks she's bi, maybe even lesbo. I tell her cool, bring a girl home, we'll have a party, but she just looks at me and says "I'm not doing this for you, Stew-art, you selfish bastard pig face. This is for me!"
     So anyways I throw a stink because this guy won't let me up to my own fucking house, I get out of the car and everything, and finally Steve from down the street comes out and tells the asshole where I live. So I go up there, and, man, it's like there was never a house. Just two posts still standing from the garage, all black and mean looking, everything black and smoking. It was hot, man, and my nose was all messed up, my eyes, too. It was hot but it was wet from the hoses and I got ashes all over me like mud. I couldn't find anything. Not the TV, not the sink, not the razor set my wife got me with the brush and little mug. The only thing I could see that looked real was a shoe, my wife's shoe, a spike heel dealy that used to be white, except she called it bone, but it had gone all black and gray. It made me think of the house that falls on the wicked witch, when her feet curl away and leave the shoes sticking out, but this shoe wasn't nowhere near ruby, and it sure as hell wasn't gonna take me down any yellow brick road.
     Where I did go, after I chucked the shoe down the hill, was the junior high, the gym there, where they got this shelter set up. It's not so bad, really. I got to see myself on TV, once my face in the whole screen and talking, once me in the back eating a chicken leg. They got a TV set up in the corner, but only Channel 5 will come in, or else I would have seen myself more. The cameras come all day long, some even at night, but we have to be quiet after 10, so that's when they go. People just fall over themselves to tell their stories, what happened to their houses, their insurance, blah blah blah. I myself got to say the standard "it's just a house" line, I'm just glad to be alive, thank god, and all that, which is pretty much true except I don't know where I'm going once the cameras stop coming and they give this gym back to the kids for dodge ball and the rope climb. I don't know where I'm gonna eat, either, cause they're feeding us here—In-N-Out, Church's Chicken, all come by, plus donuts in the morning, and I'm no dummy, I know they want to get on TV, get that free air time, oh we're such humanitarians, come eat our food, but I don't care. My wife never let me eat that stuff, the salt and grease, you know. She counted fat grams like rosary beads, she even had a little chart that fit in her wallet. So that food tastes pretty good to me. But it's weird to live in a gym.
     It used to be weird to live in the hills, too. I was like a bull in a candy shop there, but that's where my pillow was, and my shirts, and my screwdrivers, and up until recently my wife who is off humping the Swedish bikini team. So I got used to it, even though everyone thought I was the plumber just passing through. They'd ask me to look at their pipes and drains and I'd say, look, I live here, I'm a con-trac-tor, but they'd go on and on and ask me about their toilet all stopped up.
     Here we get to use the locker room toilets, which of course brings back memories of "is it big enough?" and other such questions. Just the smell does it, the piss and chlorine, plus the damp towels. So that's where I shower and use the john and comb my hair with black comb they gave me. Everyone here has the same comb, the same trial size shampoo, the same plastic razor. People who got their own stuff aren't here; they got somewhere real to stay.
     Not that this isn't real. But it doesn't feel like a real bedroom, like a real room at all, really—this gym is a fucking cathedral. The roof is so high up it's like being outside, you can barely feel the roof over your head. Yesterday a bird got in and was flying around up by the ceiling. It probably didn't even know it was inside. But then it hit a rafter, it freaked out, started bumping into the windows up top, those thick glass windows you can't really see through, the ones with wire inside. That bird knocked itself out and smacked on top of the bleachers which are all folded up against the wall. I thought I was the only one to see the thing and I didn't know what to do. Should I get it? It was up so high, I'd have to climb up something, and what is there to climb, but if I don't and it dies, it'll stink up the whole place, and I know this to be true because once a squirrel died in our chimney and it took us near two weeks to find the damn thing. We took a room in a hotel, the stink was so bad.
     So anyway, while I was picking my brain, this lady comes along and pulls her cot up to where the bleachers are, puts a chair up on that, climbs up on her tiptoes and grabs the bird. Except she doesn't really grab it, she sort of sweeps her hands along the top of the bleachers cause she can't see what she's doing, and she knocks the bird down. And then her chair starts wobbling around, and one leg slips off the cot, and then the whole thing, and that lady falls flat forward and hits her face on the corner of another cot. And the cameras should have been there then cause they could've sent the tape to that funniest videos show, maybe even get some that prize money, except her mouth was all bleeding and those funniest video people don't like blood. But that lady didn't seem to mind—she just picks up the bird and says right to me "It's a robin red breast. That's the first sign of spring." And then she leaves and I don't know if the bird is dead or stunned or if she even knocked a tooth out or what. She hasn't come back, which is too bad, because I thought maybe she'd come to my cot that night, seeing as she talked right at me, and about spring.
     That lady's been making the rounds. I hear her in the middle of the night—she sneaks up on some guy and then I hear the cot squeak, all slow and steady and then faster and then there's the moan. It's always the guy—she’s very quiet. I know it's her, because she has one shoe heel missing and you can hear it when she walks. And I know it's a different guy all the time cause the squeaks always come from a different part of the gym and everyone keeps the same cot. No guy ever turns her away, and some are married, some even with their wife in the next cot. One wife must have heard because the guy's still here and the wife's not, the kids either.
     I know why no one turns her away. She's a brick house, just like the song. I'd never really seen that before in real life until her. She's wide, like a house, and if you hit her, you'd probably break your hand. My wife, being licked in Amsterdam as we speak, she's like a little tree, easy to break. She's no house. Which is why it's too bad the lady hasn't come back. I know I would have been next. And I wouldn't have turned her away, either, even with a busted mouth and dead bird on her hands. I would have said come on, baby, lay your big self down on me like a house. Be my roof, baby, that other roof is too high up there, bring it down baby, down, down, be my burning roof, baby, rock me home.

Copyright©2003 Gayle Brandeis


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