The Fire Escape

The fire and the sirens woke everyone up.  The sky was bright orange and red.  I knew it when I looked out the window.  It was clear which house was going up in flames.

Everyone converged on the scene.  Neighbors who hadn’t seen each other in years were all talking to each other as if they were old friends.  It wasn’t so much the fire that had everyone speaking.  It was the people involved.  They were a real community bonding topic.

Our neighborhood gang did everything together.  After school our favorite pastime was basketball.  Mr. Pacheco, Andrew’s dad, and Mr. Shin, Carlton’s dad, had mounted a backboard and hoop for us atop the long stonewall at the dead end of our street.  We played on that asphalt court almost every weekday after school.

That the basket was slightly higher than regulation, and that any layup follow through meant partially climbing the stone wall were not problems.  No, the big problem was Mr. Hatanaka, “that scary guy” to all of us.

When we would play, our basketball would, a little too often, wind up running though Mr. Hatanaka’s vegetable garden, a large one, fronting his house, right there by the street, our backcourt border.

It wasn’t ever trying to do intentional damage, although no one liked him, and he’d be deserving of any disaster that came his way.  He never yelled at us, even if our ball crushed newly planted vegetables, tiny lettuce plants or what have you. If he were there he’d just stop and stare. Silent, glassy-eyes, weird.

And if the ball stopped in the middle of his garden, one of us would have to tiptoe through the crops to retrieve it, not always without doing damage.  Still no peep out of him. Just that look. If he’d have smiled and said, “Hey, no problem, kids,” it would have been the proverbial cold day in hell.

No, he wasn’t mean to us. The mean he saved for his wife Ruth.  I don’t want to think that on days we fucked up his garden that this fanned the flames.  I’d rather think that the flames for him were always fanned to top heat, you just couldn’t see them raging.  But at night they busted out, and you could hear him raging at Ruth.

We all knew he hit her.  She’d scream out that he was hitting her.  It was like a horrible contest between the two of them:  who could scream louder.  And this happened at least two or three times a week.  At least.

When they first moved into the old Santos place, we all held our breath.  The tension’s always worse when the family that moved out were so nice and neighborly.  You hope you get the same kind of folks replacing them.  Sometimes you do, and sometimes you get the Mr. Hatanaka.

Ruth was nice. She’d come out to watch us play, before her husband came home from work, before he came home and started in on the beer.

It was amazing.  I used to watch him water his yard.  Using the tab on the can, he’d walk around with the beer hanging off his teeth.  To sip, he’d simply tip his head back.  Both hands were always free.

Ruth was super to us, came out and offered us sodas.  She’d boil up her husband’s soy beans for us.  Sometimes we’d have spam musubi.  Her peanut butter mochi melted in your mouth, and her cornbread was the most moist I’ve ever had.

You could almost forget that she was married to that scary guy.  But then he’d always come home, never conveniently killed in a car accident. She’d have to go inside. And then you’d wait to see if the nightmare would begin.

At first a few folks called the cops.  My mom and dad both did that early on.  The police would come, talk to the Hatanakas, leave.  My dad said Mr. Hatanaka would have to kill Ruth before anything could be done.

Gradually the police cars stopped coming down our street.  The fighting was just as bad, but none of us called for help for Ruth anymore. We gave up.

Some nights it would go on and on.  I’d be in bed and you could still hear Mr. Hatanaka yelling.  The only good news was that the more he drank, it seemed like the less frequent his outbursts.  My parents speculated that he drank until he passed out.

The fire was nearly out now.  The crowd gradually thinned and I saw Ruth sitting a ways away on the curb.  I scanned the area for Mr. Hatanaka, didn’t see him, wanted to go over to Ruth and ask her how she was. But I didn’t.

I watched her, sitting there, her face blackened with ash, her cheeks tracked with tears, shoulders sagging, hands on her knees.  She examined her palms, looking at them for a long time, trying to see the future maybe.

The cops were talking to her.  I clearly heard her say, “You guys all knew him, what he was like, what he did to me.  But I never gave up.  I loved him. I would never . . . ”

One of the officers took her arm and helped her up.  Ruth began to cry.  “I didn’t,” she sobbed.  “I couldn’t.”

They took her to one of the cars and sat her in the back.  I watched them drive her away, her face leaning against the window, staring at the smoking remains of her home.

I never saw Ruth again. My dad said there’d not been enough evidence to charge her.  My mom and he truly believed that Ruth was innocent, that, as she said, she’d tried to wake up Mr. Hatanaka, but he’d been so dead drunk she couldn’t get him up and out.

In the final report I guess it was a cigarette.  Mr. Hatanaka had passed out while smoking. I was glad Ruth was free of him.

You know really, if anyone should have gone to jail, we all knew, it should have been him.  That they would even take Ruth in was offensive to many of the grown-ups.  Everyone felt such great pity for Ruth.  Everyone loathed Mr. Hatanaka.

I felt real guilty. I think it was actually all of us who should feel that way, the neighbors who gave up on Ruth.

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