Little Fires Everywhere (3 page)

In front of the house, Pearl was carefully arranging the pieces of a wooden bed on the front lawn. Moody, gliding to a stop across the street,
saw a slender girl in a long, crinkly skirt and a loose T-shirt with a message he couldn't quite read. Her hair was long and curly and hung in a thick braid down her back and gave the impression of straining to burst free. She had laid the headboard down flat near the flowerbeds that bordered the house, with the side rails below it and the slats to either side in neat rows, like ribs. It was as if the bed had drawn a deep breath and then gracefully flattened itself into the grass. Moody watched, half hidden by a tree, as she picked her way around to the Rabbit, which sat in the driveway with its doors thrown wide, and extracted the footboard from the backseat. He wondered what kind of Tetris they had done to fit all the pieces of the bed into such a small car. Her feet were bare as she crossed the lawn to set the footboard into place. Then, to his bemusement, she stepped into the empty rectangle in the center, where the mattress belonged, and flopped down on her back.

On the second story of the house, a window rattled open and Mia's head peered out. “All there?”

“Two slats missing,” Pearl called back.

“We'll replace them. No, wait, stay there. Don't move.” Mia's head disappeared again. In a moment she reappeared holding a camera, a real camera, with a thick lens like a big tin can. Pearl stayed just as she was, staring up at the half-clouded sky, and Mia leaned out almost to the waist, angling for the right shot. Moody held his breath, afraid the camera might slip from her hands onto her daughter's trusting upturned face, that she might tumble over the sill herself and come crashing down into the grass. None of this happened. Mia's head tilted this way and that, framing the scene below in her viewfinder. The camera hid her face, hid everything but her hair, piled in a frizzy swirl atop her head like a dark halo. Later, when Moody saw the finished photos, he thought at first that Pearl looked
like a delicate fossil, something caught for millennia in the skeleton belly of a prehistoric beast. Then he thought she looked like an angel resting with her wings spread out behind her. And then, after a moment, she looked simply like a girl asleep in a lush green bed, waiting for her lover to lie down beside her.

“All right,” Mia called down. “Got it.” She slid back inside, and Pearl sat up and looked across the street, directly at Moody, and his heart jumped.

“You want to help?” she said. “Or just stand there?”

Moody would never remember crossing the street, or propping his bike in the front walkway, or introducing himself. So it would feel to him that he had always known her name, and that she had always known his, that somehow, he and Pearl had known each other always.

Together they ferried the pieces of the bed frame up the narrow stairway. The living room was empty except for a stack of boxes in one corner and a large red cushion in the center of the floor.

“This way.” Pearl tugged her armful of bed slats higher and led Moody into the larger bedroom, which held nothing except a faded but clean twin mattress leaning against one wall.

“Here,” said Mia, depositing a steel toolbox at Pearl's feet. “You'll want these.” She gave Moody a smile, as if he were an old friend. “Call me if you need another set of hands.” Then she stepped back into the hallway, and in a moment they heard the snick of a box being slit open.

Pearl wielded the tools with expert hands, levering the side panels into place against the headboard, propping them up on one ankle while she bolted them into place. Moody sat beside the open toolbox and watched her with unfolding awe. In his house, if something broke, his mother called a repairman to fix it—the stove, the washer, the disposal—or, for
almost anything else, it was discarded and replaced. Every three or four years, or when the springs began to sag, his mother picked a new living room set, the old set moved into the basement rec room, and the old-old set from the rec room was given away to the juvenile boys' home on the West Side, or to the women's shelter downtown. His father did not tinker with the car in the garage; when it rattled or squealed he brought it to the Lusty Wrench, where Luther had tended to every car the Richardsons had owned for the past twenty years. The only time he himself had handled any tools, Moody realized, was in eighth-grade shop: they'd been put in groups, one team measuring and one sawing and one sanding, and at the end of the term everyone dutifully screwed their pieces together to make a little box-shaped candy dispenser that gave you three Skittles every time you pulled the handle. Trip had made an identical one in shop the year before and Lexie had made an identical one the year before that and Izzy made yet another the following year, and despite the whole term of shop, despite the four identical candy dispensers stashed somewhere in their house, Moody was not sure that anyone in the Richardson household could do more than work a Phillips screwdriver.

“How'd you learn to do all that?” he asked, handing Pearl another bed slat.

Pearl shrugged. “From my mom,” she said, pinning the slat in place with one hand and plucking a screw from the pile on the carpet.

The bed, when assembled, proved to be an old-fashioned twin with bed knobs, the kind Goldilocks might have slept in.

“Where'd you get it?” Moody set the mattress in place and gave it an experimental bounce.

Pearl replaced the screwdriver in the toolbox and latched it shut. “We found it.”

She sat down on the bed, back propped against the footboard, legs stretched along the bed's length, gazing up at the ceiling, as if testing it out. Moody sat down at the head of the bed, near her feet. Wisps of grass stuck to her toes and her calves and the hem of her skirt. She smelled like fresh air and mint shampoo.

“This is
my room
,” Pearl said suddenly, and Moody sprang up again. “Sorry,” he said, a hot flush rising to his cheeks.

Pearl glanced up, as if for a moment she'd forgotten he was there. “Oh,” she said. “That's not what I meant.” She picked a sliver of grass from between her toes and flicked it away and they watched it settle on the carpet. When she began again, her tone was one of wonder. “I've never had my own room before.”

Moody turned her words over in his mind. “You mean you always had to share?” He tried to imagine a world where this was possible. He tried to imagine sharing a room with Trip, who littered the floor with dirty socks and sports magazines, whose first action when he came home was to snap the radio on—always to “Jammin” 92.3—as if without that inane bass thumping, his heart might not beat. On vacation, the Richardsons always booked three rooms: one for Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, one for Lexie and Izzy, one for Trip and Moody—and at breakfast Trip would make fun of Moody for sometimes talking in his sleep. For Pearl and her mother to have had to share a room—Moody almost could not believe that people could be so poor.

Pearl shook her head. “We've never had a house of our own before,” she said, and Moody stifled the urge to tell her that this wasn't a house, it was only half a house. She traced the dips of the mattress with her fingertip, circling the buttons in each dimple.

Watching her, Moody could not see all that she was remembering: the
finicky stove in Urbana, which they'd had to light with a match; the fifth-floor walk-up in Middlebury and the weed-choked garden in Ocala and the smoky apartment in Muncie, where the previous tenant had let his pet rabbit roam the living room, leaving gnawed-in holes and several questionable stains. And the sublet in Ann Arbor, years ago now, that she'd most hated to leave, because the people who'd lived there had had a daughter just a year or two older than she was, and every day of the six months she and her mother had lived there she had played with that lucky girl's collection of horse figurines and sat in her child-sized armchair and lain in her white-frosted canopy bed to sleep, and sometimes, in the middle of the night when her mother was asleep, she would turn on the bedside light and open that girl's closet and try on her dresses and her shoes, even though they were all a little too big. There had been photos of that girl everywhere in the house—on the mantel, on the end tables in the living room, in the stairwell a big, beautiful studio portrait of her with chin in hand—and it had been so easy for Pearl to pretend that this was her house and that these were her things, her room, her life. When the couple and their daughter had returned from their sabbatical, Pearl had not even been able to look at the girl, tanned and wiry and too tall now for those dresses in the closet. She had cried all the way to Lafayette, where they would stay for the next eight months, and even the prancing china palomino she had stolen from the girl's collection gave her no comfort, for though she waited nervously, there was never any complaint about the loss, and what could be less satisfying than stealing from someone so endowed that they never even noticed what you'd taken? Her mother must have understood, for they didn't sublet again. Pearl hadn't complained either, knowing now that she preferred an empty apartment to one filled with someone else's things.

“We move around a lot. Whenever my mom gets the bug.” She looked
at him fiercely, almost a glare, and Moody saw that her eyes, which he'd thought were hazel, were a deep jade green. At that moment Moody had a sudden clear understanding of what had already happened that morning: his life had been divided into a before and an after, and he would always be comparing the two.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked.


he next few weeks became a series of tomorrows for Moody. They went to Fernway, his old elementary school, where they clambered up the slide and shimmied up the pole and tumbled from the catwalk to the wood chips below. He took Pearl to Draeger's for hot fudge sundaes. At Horseshoe Lake, they climbed trees like children, throwing stale chunks of bread to the ducks bobbing below. In Yours Truly, the local diner, they sat in a high-backed wooden booth and ate fries smothered in cheese and bacon and fed quarters into the jukebox to play “Great Balls of Fire” and “Hey Jude.”

“Take me to see the Shakers,” Pearl suggested one day, and Moody laughed.

“There aren't any Shakers in Shaker Heights,” he said. “They all died out. Didn't believe in sex. They just named the town after them.”

Moody was half right, though neither he nor most of the kids in the town knew much about its history. The Shakers had indeed left the land that would become Shaker Heights long before, and by the summer of 1997 there were exactly twelve left in the world. But Shaker Heights had been founded, if not on Shaker principles, with the same idea of creating a utopia. Order—and regulation, the father of order—had been the
Shakers' key to harmony. They had regulated everything: the proper time for rising in the morning, the proper color of window curtains, the proper length of a man's hair, the proper way to fold one's hands in prayer (right thumb over left). If they planned every detail, the Shakers had believed, they could create a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world, and the founders of Shaker Heights had thought the same. In advertisements they depicted Shaker Heights in the clouds, looking down upon the grimy city of Cleveland from a mountaintop at the end of a rainbow's arch. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws. Even the teens of Shaker Heights—whose main exposure to Shakers was singing “Simple Gifts” in music class—could feel that drive for perfection still in the air.

As Pearl learned more about her new hometown, Moody began to learn more about Mia's art, and the intricacies and vagaries of the Warren family finances.

Moody had never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap. Groceries appeared in the refrigerator at regular intervals and reappeared as cooked meals on the table at mealtimes. He had had an allowance since he was ten, starting at five dollars per week and increasing steadily with inflation and age up to its current twenty dollars. Between that and birthday cards from aunts and relatives, each reliably containing a folded bill, he had enough for a used book from Mac's Backs, or the occasional CD, or new guitar strings, whatever he felt he needed.

Mia and Pearl got as much as they could used—or better yet, free. In just a few weeks, they'd learned the location of every Salvation Army store, St. Vincent de Paul's, and Goodwill in the greater Cleveland area.
The week they'd arrived, Mia had gotten a job at Lucky Palace, a local Chinese restaurant; several afternoons and evenings a week, she took and packaged up takeout orders at the counter. They soon learned that for dining out, everyone in Shaker seemed to prefer Pearl of the Orient, just a few blocks away, but Lucky Palace did a good takeout business. In addition to Mia's hourly pay, the servers gave her a share of their tips, and when there was extra food, she took a few containers home—slightly stale rice, leftover sweet-and-sour pork, vegetables just past their prime—which sustained her and Pearl for most of the week. They had very little, but that wasn't immediately obvious: Mia was good at repurposing. Lo mein, without its sauce, was topped with Ragú from a jar one night, reheated and topped with orange beef another. Old bedsheets, purchased for a quarter each at the thrift store, turned into curtains, a tablecloth, pillow covers. Moody thought of math class: a practical application of combinatorics. How many different ways could you combine mu shu pancakes and fillings? How many different combinations could you make with rice, pork, and peppers?

“Why doesn't your mom get a real job?” Moody asked Pearl one afternoon. “I bet she could get more hours a week. Or maybe even a full-time spot at Pearl of the Orient, or some other place.” He had wondered this all week, ever since he'd learned about Mia's job. If she took on more hours, he reasoned, she would make enough for them to have a real sofa, real meals, perhaps a TV.

Pearl stared, brow furrowed, as if she simply did not understand the question.

“But she
a job,” she said. “She's an artist.”

They had lived this way for years, with Mia taking a part-time job that earned just enough for them to get by. For as long as she could remember, Pearl had understood the hierarchy: her mother's real work was her art,
and whatever paid the bills existed only to make that art possible. Her mother spent several hours every day working—though at first Moody had not realized this was what she was doing. Sometimes she was downstairs in the makeshift darkroom she'd rigged up in the basement laundry room, developing rolls of film or making prints. Sometimes she seemed to spend all her time reading—things that weren't obviously relevant to Moody, like cooking magazines from the 1960s, or car manuals, or an immense hardcover biography of Eleanor Roosevelt from the library—or even staring out the living room window at the tree just outside it. One morning when he arrived, Mia was toying with a loop of string, playing cat's cradle, and when they returned she was still at it, weaving ever more complicated nets between her fingers and then suddenly unraveling them back into a single loop and beginning again. “Part of the process,” Pearl informed him as they cut through the living room, with the nonchalant air of a native unfazed by the curious customs of the land.

Sometimes Mia went out with her camera, but more often she might spend days, or even weeks, preparing something to photograph, with the actual taking of the photographs lasting only a few hours. For Mia, Moody learned, did not consider herself a photographer. Photography, at its heart, was about documentation, and he soon understood that for Mia photography was simply a tool, which she used as a painter might use a brush or a knife.

A plain photograph might be doctored later: with embroidered carnival masks obscuring the faces of the people within, or the figures themselves might be clipped out, paper-doll style, and dressed in clothes cut from fashion magazines. In one set of photos, Mia rinsed the negatives before making prints that were oddly distorted—a photo of a clean kitchen speckled with spots from lemonade; a photo of laundry on the clothesline rendered ghostlike and warped by bleach. In another set, she
carefully double-exposed each frame—layering a far-off skyscraper over the middle finger of her hand; superimposing a dead bird, wings akimbo on the pavement, over a blue sky, so that except for the closed eyes, it looked as if it were flying.

She worked unconventionally, keeping only photos she liked and tossing the rest. When the idea was exhausted, she kept a single print of each shot and destroyed the negatives. “I'm not interested in syndication,” she said to Moody rather airily, when he asked why she didn't make multiples. She seldom photographed people—occasionally, she would take a picture of Pearl, as with the bed on the lawn, but she never used them in her work. She never used herself either: once, Pearl told Moody, she had done a series of self-portraits, wearing different objects as masks—a piece of black lace, five-fingered horse-chestnut leaves, a damp and pliant starfish—had spent a month on these photos, narrowing them down to a set of eight. They'd been beautiful and eerie, and even now Pearl could see them exactly: her mother's bright eye like a pearl peeking out between the legs of the starfish. But at the last moment Mia had burned the prints and negatives, for reasons even Pearl could not fathom. “You spent all that time,” she'd said, “and just
”—she snapped her fingers—“like that?”

“They weren't working” was all Mia would say.

But the pictures she did keep, and sold, were startling.

In their luxurious sublet in Ann Arbor, Mia had taken various pieces of her hosts' furniture apart and arranged the components—bolts as thick as her finger, unvarnished crossbeams, disembodied feet—into animals. A bulky secretary desk from the nineteenth century transformed into a bull, the sides of the disassembled drawers forming muscled legs, the cast-iron knobs of its drawer pulls serving as the bull's nose and eyes and glinting balls, a handful of pens from inside the desk fanned out into the
crescents of horns. With Pearl's help, she had laid the pieces out on the cream-colored Persian carpet, which as a backdrop looked like a field fogged with steam, and then she had climbed on top of a table to photograph it from above before they picked it back apart and reassembled it into a desk. An old Chinese birdcage, broken down into a web of arched wires, had become an eagle, its brassy skeletal wings spread as if about to take flight. An overstuffed sofa had become an elephant, trunk raised in trumpet song. The series of photos that emerged from this project were both intriguing and unsettling, the animals incredibly intricate and lifelike, and then you looked closer and realized what they had been made of. She had sold quite a few of these, through her friend Anita, a gallery owner in New York—a person Pearl had never met in a place she'd never been. Mia hated New York, would never go even to promote her own work. “Anita,” Mia had said into the phone once, “I love you dearly but I cannot come to New York for a show. No, not even if it meant I'd sell a hundred pieces.” A pause. “I know it does, but you know I can't. All right. You do what you can, and that's good enough for me.” Still, Anita had managed to sell a half dozen of the series, which meant instead of cleaning houses Mia had been able to spend the next six months working on a new project.

That was how her mother worked: one project for four or six months, then on to the next. She'd work and work and come up with a group of photos and Anita would usually be able to sell at least a few of them in her gallery. At first the prices had been so modest—a few hundred dollars per piece—that Mia sometimes had to take on two jobs, or even three. But as time went on, her work became regarded well enough in the art world that Anita could sell more pieces, for more money: enough to pay for what Mia and Pearl needed—food, rent, gas for the Rabbit—even after Anita's fifty-percent cut. “Two or three thousand dollars, sometimes,” Pearl told
him with pride, and Moody did quick mental math: if Mia sold ten pictures a year . . .

Sometimes the photos did not sell—a project Mia did with skeletal leaves sold only one, and for several months she took up a series of odd jobs: housecleaning, flower arranging, cake decorating. She was good at anything that involved her hands, and she preferred the jobs where she did not have to work with customers, where she could be alone and thinking, to waitressing, secretarying, salesclerking. “I was a salesgirl once, before you were born,” she told Pearl. “I lasted one day. One. The manager kept telling me how to put the dresses on hangers. Customers would pull the beads off clothes and demand discounts. I'd rather mop a floor, alone in the house, than deal with that.”

But other projects did sell, and got attention. One series—which Mia began after she'd been doing some seamstress work—supported them for nearly a year. She would go to thrift stores and buy old stuffed animals—faded teddy bears, ratty plush dogs, threadbare rabbits—the cheaper the better. At home, she took them apart at the seams, washed their pelts, fluffed their filling, repolished their eyes. Then she stitched them back together, inside out, and the results were eerily beautiful. The ragged fur, in reverse, took on the look of shorn velvet. The whole animal, resewn and restuffed, had the same shape but a different bearing, the backs and necks straighter, the ears perkier; the eyes shone now with a knowing glint. It was as if the animal had been reincarnated, older and bolder and wiser. Pearl had loved watching her mother at work, bent over the kitchen table, laboring with the precision of a surgeon—scalpel, needle, pins—to transform these toys into art. Anita had sold every photo in this series; one had even, she reported, made its way to MoMA. She'd begged Mia to take another round, or to reprint the series, but Mia had refused. “The idea is done,” she said. “I'm working on something else now.” And she
always was, always something a bit different, always something that had struck her fancy. She would be famous someday, Pearl was certain; someday her adored mother would be one of those artists, like de Kooning or Warhol or O'Keeffe, whose name everyone knew. It was why part of her, at least, didn't mind the life they'd always lived, their thrift-store clothes, their salvaged beds and chairs, the shifting precariousness of it all. One day everyone would see her mother's brilliance.

To Moody, this kind of existence was all but unfathomable. Watching the Warrens live was like watching a magic trick, as miraculous as transforming an empty soda can into a silver pitcher, or pulling a steaming pie from a silk top hat. No, he thought: it was like watching Robinson Crusoe conjure up a living out of nothingness. The more time he spent with Mia and Pearl, the more fascinated he became with them.

Through his afternoons with Pearl, Moody slowly learned some of what their life on the road was like. They traveled lightly: two plates and two cups and a handful of mismatched silverware; a duffel of clothes each; and, of course, Mia's cameras. In the summer, they drove with the windows down, for the Rabbit had no air-conditioning; in the winter, they drove by night, the heat cranked up, and in the daytime would park in a sunny spot, sleeping in the snug greenhouse of the car before starting again as the sun set. At night, Mia pushed the bags into the footwells and laid a folded army blanket across them and the backseat, forming a bed that could just hold them both. For privacy, they draped a sheet from the hatchback over the headrests of the front seats to make a little tent. At mealtimes they stopped by the side of the road, feeding themselves from the paper bag of groceries behind the driver's seat: bread and peanut butter, fruit, sometimes salami or a stick of pepperoni, if Mia found it on sale. Sometimes they drove for just a few days, sometimes for a week, until Mia found a spot that felt right, and they would stop.

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