Little Fires Everywhere (2 page)

2

T
he previous June, when Mia and Pearl had moved into the little rental house on Winslow Road, neither Mrs. Richardson (who technically owned the house) nor Mr. Richardson (who handed over the keys) had given them much thought. They knew there was no Mr. Warren, and that Mia was thirty-six, according to the Michigan driver's license she had provided. They noticed that she wore no ring on her left hand, though she wore plenty of other rings: a big amethyst on her first finger, one made from a silver spoon handle on her pinkie, and one on her thumb that to Mrs. Richardson looked suspiciously like a mood ring. But she seemed nice enough, and so did her daughter, Pearl, a quiet fifteen-year-old with a long dark braid. Mia paid the first and last months' rent, and the deposit, in a stack of twenty-dollar bills, and the tan VW Rabbit—already battered, even then—puttered away down Parkland Drive, toward the south end of Shaker, where the houses were closer together and the yards smaller.

Winslow Road was one long line of duplexes, but standing on the curb you would not have known it. From the outside you saw only one front door, one front-door light, one mailbox, one house number. You might, perhaps, spot the two electrical meters, but those—per city ordinance—
were concealed at the back of the house, along with the garage. Only if you came into the entryway would you see the two inner doors, one leading to the upstairs apartment, one to the downstairs, and their shared basement beneath. Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.

Shaker Heights was like that. There were rules, many rules, about what you could and could not do, as Mia and Pearl began to learn as they settled into their new home. They learned to write their new address: 18434 Winslow Road
Up
, those two little letters ensuring that their mail ended up in their apartment, and not with Mr. Yang downstairs. They learned that the little strip of grass between sidewalk and street was called a
tree lawn
—because of the young Norway maple, one per house, that graced it—and that garbage cans were not dragged there on Friday mornings but instead left at the rear of the house, to avoid the unsightly spectacle of trash cans cluttering the curb. Large motor scooters, each piloted by a man in an orange work suit, zipped down each driveway to collect the garbage in the privacy of the backyard, ferrying it to the larger truck idling out in the street, and for months Mia would remember their first Friday on Winslow Road, the fright she'd had when the scooter, like a revved-up flame-colored golf cart, shot past the kitchen window with engine roaring. They got used to it eventually, just as they got used to the detached garage—stationed well at the back of the house, again to preserve the view of the street—and learned to carry an umbrella to keep them dry as they ran from car to house on rainy days. Later, when Mr. Yang went away for two weeks in July, to visit his mother in Hong
Kong, they learned that an unmowed lawn would result in a polite but stern letter from the city, noting that their grass was over six inches tall and that if the situation was not rectified, the city would mow the grass—and charge them a hundred dollars—in three days. There were many rules to be learned.

And there were many other rules that Mia and Pearl would not be aware of for a long time. The rules governing what colors a house could be painted, for example. A helpful chart from the city categorized every home as a Tudor, English, or French style and laid out the appropriate colors for architects and homeowners alike. “English-style” houses could be painted only slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan, to ensure aesthetic harmony on each street; Tudor houses required a specific shade of cream on the plaster and a specific dark brown on the timbers. In Shaker Heights there was a plan for everything. When the city had been laid out in 1912—one of the first planned communities in the nation—schools had been situated so that all children could walk without crossing a major street; side streets fed into major boulevards, with strategically placed rapid-transit stops to ferry commuters into downtown Cleveland. In fact, the city's motto was—
literally,
as Lexie would have said—“Most communities just happen; the best are planned”: the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

But there were other, more welcoming things to discover in those first few weeks as well. Between cleaning and repainting and unpacking, they learned the names of the streets around them: Winchell, Latimore, Lynnfield. They learned their way around the local grocery store, Heinen's, which Mia said treated you like aristocracy. Instead of wheeling your cart out to the parking lot, a cart boy in a pressed poplin shirt hung a number
on it and handed you a matching red-and-white tag. Then you hooked the tag on the window of your car and drove up to the front of the store, where another cart boy would wheel your groceries out to you and pack them tidily into your trunk and refuse to accept a tip.

They learned where the cheapest gas station was—at the corner of Lomond and Lee Roads, always one cent less than anywhere else; where the drugstores were and which gave double coupons. They learned that in nearby Cleveland Heights and Warrensville and Beachwood, residents placed their discarded belongings at the curb like ordinary people, and they learned which days were garbage days on which streets. They learned where to buy a hammer, a screwdriver, a quart of new paint and a brush: all could be found at Shaker Hardware, but only between the hours of nine thirty and six
P.M.
, when the owner sent his employees home for dinner.

And, for Pearl, there was the discovery of their landlords, and of the Richardson children.

Moody was the first of the Richardsons to venture to the little house on Winslow. He had heard his mother describing their new tenants to his father. “She's some kind of artist,” Mrs. Richardson had said, and when Mr. Richardson asked what kind, she answered jokingly, “A struggling one.”

“It's all right,” she reassured her husband. “She gave me a deposit right up front.” “That doesn't mean she'll pay the rent,” Mr. Richardson said, but they both knew it wasn't the rent that was important—only three hundred dollars a month for the upstairs—and they certainly didn't need it to get by. Mr. Richardson was a defense attorney and Mrs. Richardson worked for the local paper, the
Sun Press.
The Winslow house was theirs free and clear; Mrs. Richardson's parents had bought it as an investment property when she was a teenager. Its rent had helped put her through
Denison, then had become a monthly “booster”—as her mother had put it—while she started off as a cub reporter. Then, after she'd married Bill Richardson and become Mrs. Richardson, it had helped make up the down payment on a beautiful Shaker house of their own, the same house on Parkland that she would later watch burn. When Mrs. Richardson's parents had died, five years ago and within months of each other, she had inherited the Winslow house. Her parents had been in an assisted-living home for some time by then, and the house she had grown up in had already been sold. But they had kept the Winslow house, its rent paying for their care, and now Mrs. Richardson kept it, too, as a sentimental memory.

No, it wasn't the money that mattered. The rent—all five hundred dollars of it in total—now went into the Richardsons' vacation fund each month, and last year it had paid for their trip to Martha's Vineyard, where Lexie had perfected her backstroke and Trip had bewitched all the local girls and Moody had sunburnt to a peeling crisp and Izzy, under great duress, had finally agreed to come down to the beach—fully clothed, in her Doc Martens, and glowering. But the truth was, there was plenty of money for a vacation even without it. Because they did not
need
the money from the house, it was the
kind
of tenant that mattered to Mrs. Richardson. She wanted to feel that she was doing good with it. Her parents had brought her up to do good; they had donated every year to the Humane Society and UNICEF and always attended local fund-raisers, once winning a three-foot-tall stuffed bear at the Rotary Club's silent auction. Mrs. Richardson looked at the house as a form of charity. She kept the rent low—real estate in Cleveland was cheap, but apartments in good neighborhoods like Shaker could be pricey—and she rented only to people she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life. It pleased her to make up the difference.

Mr. Yang had been the first tenant she'd taken after inheriting the house; he was an immigrant from Hong Kong who had come to the United States knowing no one and speaking only fragmentary, heavily accented English. Over the years his accent had diminished only marginally, and when they spoke, Mrs. Richardson was sometimes reduced to nodding and smiling. But Mr. Yang was a good man, she felt; he worked very hard, driving a school bus to Laurel Academy, a nearby private girls' school, and working as a handyman. Living alone on such a meager income, he would never have been able to live in such a nice neighborhood. He would have ended up in a cramped, gray efficiency somewhere off Buckeye Road, or more likely in the gritty triangle of east Cleveland that passed for a Chinatown, where rent was suspiciously low, every other building was abandoned, and sirens wailed at least once a night. Plus, Mr. Yang kept the house in impeccable shape, repairing leaky faucets, patching the front concrete, and coaxing the stamp-sized backyard into a lush garden. Every summer he brought her Chinese melons he had grown, like a tithe, and although Mrs. Richardson had no idea what to do with them—they were jade green, wrinkled, and disconcertingly fuzzy—she appreciated his thoughtfulness anyway. Mr. Yang was exactly the kind of tenant Mrs. Richardson wanted: a kind person to whom she could do a kind turn, and who would appreciate her kindness.

With the upstairs apartment she had been less successful. The upstairs had had a new tenant every year or so: a cellist who had just been hired to teach at the Institute of Music; a divorcée in her forties; a young newlywed couple fresh out of Cleveland State. Each of them had deserved a little booster, as she'd begun to think of it. But none of them stayed long. The cellist, denied first chair in the Cleveland Orchestra, left the city in a cloud of bitterness. The divorcée remarried after a whirlwind four-month romance and moved with her new husband to a brand-new McMansion in
Lakewood. And the young couple, who had seemed so sincere, so devoted, and so deeply in love, had quarreled irreparably and separated after a mere eighteen months, leaving a broken lease, some shattered vases, and three cracked spots in the wall, head-high, where those vases had shattered.

It was a lesson, Mrs. Richardson had decided. This time she would be more careful. She asked Mr. Yang to patch the plaster and took her time finding a new tenant, the right sort of tenant. 18434 Winslow Road
Up
sat empty for nearly six months until Mia Warren and her daughter came along. A single mother, well spoken, artistic, raising a daughter who was polite and fairly pretty and possibly brilliant.

“I heard Shaker schools are the best in Cleveland,” Mia had said when Mrs. Richardson asked why they'd come to Shaker. “Pearl is working at the college level already. But I can't afford private school.” She glanced over at Pearl, who stood quietly in the empty living room of the apartment, hands clasped in front of her, and the girl smiled shyly. Something about that look between mother and child caught Mrs. Richardson's heart in a butterfly net. She assured Mia that yes, Shaker schools were excellent—Pearl could enroll in AP classes in every subject; there were science labs, a planetarium, five languages she could learn.

“There's a wonderful theatre program, if she's interested in that,” she added. “My daughter Lexie was Helena in
A Midsummer Night's Dream
last year.” She quoted the Shaker schools' motto:
A community is known by the schools it keeps.
Real estate taxes in Shaker were higher than anywhere else, but residents certainly got their money's worth. “But you'll be renting, so of course you get all the benefits with none of the burden,” she added with a laugh. She handed Mia an application, but she'd already decided. It gave her immense satisfaction to imagine this woman and her
daughter settling into the apartment, Pearl doing her homework at the kitchen table, Mia perhaps working on a painting or a sculpture—for she had not mentioned her exact medium—in the enclosed porch overlooking the backyard.

Moody, listening to his mother describe their new tenants, was intrigued less by the artist than by the mention of the “brilliant” daughter just his age. A few days after Mia and Pearl moved in, his curiosity got the better of him. As always, he took his bike, an old fixed-gear Schwinn that had belonged to his father long ago in Indiana. Nobody biked in Shaker Heights, just as nobody took the bus: you either drove or somebody drove you; it was a town built for cars and for people who had cars. Moody biked. He wouldn't be sixteen until spring, and he never asked Lexie or Trip to drive him anywhere if he could help it.

He pushed off and followed the curve of Parkland Drive, past the duck pond, where he had never seen a duck in his life, only swarms of big, brash Canadian geese; across Van Aken Boulevard and the rapid-transit tracks to Winslow Road. He didn't come here often—none of the children had much to do with the rental house—but he knew where it was. A few times, when he was younger, he had sat in the idling car in the driveway, staring at the peach tree in the yard and skimming the radio stations while his mother ran in to drop something off or check on something. It didn't happen often; for the most part, except when his mother was looking for tenants, the house mostly ran itself. Now he realized, as his wheels bumped over the joints between the big sandstone slabs that made up the sidewalks, that he had never been inside. He wasn't sure any of the kids ever had.

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