Below I’ve posted the first three sections of one of my short stories, “622 Jefferson Street.” I wrote it as my final assignment for an Advanced Fiction Writing class at Notre Dame this past spring semester, but I’ve been working on it in one form or another for about a year. The tone, style and even plot line are still in flux, but I’ve given myself a few months’ distance. I’d appreciate any comments you might have– positive or critical! And please contact me if you’re interested in reading the full manuscript.
622 Jefferson Street
The 1200 block of Jefferson Street surprised me. It’s hard to tell what a neighborhood’s like from the aerial view on Google Maps, but when I got there I couldn’t believe how beautiful the houses were. Old Victorians with extravagant molding, long windows and the sad remnants of wraparound porches. Somehow, the houses looked vaguely familiar, but I’d never been to Ohio before and I’d definitely never been here.
The houses were beautiful but twenty years past their prime, stripped of paint and porches, roofs so thin a bird’s claw could puncture them. If you looked close enough you could see entire structures sinking an inch or two into the dry earth, the ground coughing up bits of dust from the pressure.
If you looked even closer you could see folding lawn chairs — the old rattling kind made of rainbow vinyl and plastic — and on those lawn chairs, people. The people only watched what was in front of them. The people stared right into the dusk, their eyes dark and full and steady.
I pulled up slowly, grazing the curb. When I got out, a bunch of teenagers were messing around in the street, cursing and kicking around empty cans of Coke. I walked briskly past them. They stared at me but said nothing; I became intensely aware of the way my skirt’s material gathered under my ass each time I took a step. The can rolled towards me in slow motion and I kicked it to the side with my heel. I didn’t look back. I loved the way that skirt hugged my curves but 1208 Jefferson Street was no home for pencil skirts.
The empty tin sound of the can-kicking didn’t resume until I’d made it two blocks down.
I had gotten the call around 5:30 p.m. to head out to the East side of the city. Fifth fire in two days, Shirley said. Still burning so I better move fast. Fast fast fast fast, I know you’re on the late shift and it doesn’t start till six but it’s red hot and will be out soon, we need a photo Jules, the photog couldn’t get out there — his kid’s sick with the stomach bug — so we’ll need you to take a shot on your phone. You’ve got one of those smarty-pants phones, right? Always better to capture something in action than post-action, right Jules? I mean, who wants to see a burnt-down house, a pile of ashes, when you can see a burning one?
Shirley advised me to park way back on the road away from the cop cars, which meant I would have to walk through the neighborhood. Jeez, this wasn’t one of the best neighborhoods — she should have warned me. That’s the thing about Shirley, I love her but she’s been off the streets so long she doesn’t know how bad it’s gotten around here. Considering there’ve been 17 shootings this summer and 13 in August alone, she should realize. But Shirley, she just remembers when she was the cops reporter back in the eighties and the bad part of the city was a quarter square mile thick with bodies and blood, all of it gang violence. As long as you stayed away from that you were safe.
But it’s not like that anymore. Things around here are always smoking, or burning, or disappearing altogether. The violence goes wherever the heat goes and the heat is everywhere. And Google Maps doesn’t tell you where the “good” and “bad” neighborhoods are in Norge. Google knows, I’m sure, but Google has to be objective. Google has to be PC.
I had one more block to go until the fire. The house looked totally fine from a distance, which was the strangest part. All of the damage must have been shrouded in smoke.
At the end of the road I saw police lights, flashing violently behind a shade of ash and smoke. The closer I got, the lights became stronger and the fire weaker.
I felt around my purse for my notebook and tucked it under my arm.
I couldn’t help but view the scene as swarming dots of darkness and color.
“It will get easier, don’t worry, Jules,” Shirley told me that night after I came in from the Jefferson Street house fire, my hair disheveled and reporter’s notebook essentially illegible. Soaking wet. It looked like I’d fallen right into the hose’s stream, and I hoped that’s what Shirley thought, but honestly, my water bottle just opened in my bag. God damnit.
I’d already lost three iPhones that way and I really needed to stop doing that.
“After awhile, you’ll hardly think twice about the fires,” Shirley said.
I nodded at my editor without really looking at her, and when she walked away took an excessively large bite from my cardboard vending machine sandwich. The turkey was about an inch think, a slab of salt and rubber. The bread was hard. Probably sitting in there since the 70s when they installed the vending machine. I was absolutely famished, though, with that clawing gurgliness in my stomach, so I ate it anyway.
“You’re a brave soul,” the court reporter, Kelly, said to me as she walked past my desk. I looked up to smile at her but my mouth was stuffed with bread and meat. I tried to do that thing where you smile with your eyes, but because my mouth was all contorted with sandwich, I’m pretty sure it just looked creepy. So much for making good impressions on your coworkers. She sort of stood there awkwardly, waiting for my response as I tried desperately to swallow, but the bread was just too dry to slide down that easily. Not my fault, but how do you tell someone that?
Finally, I managed to get some words out.
“Um, thanks Kelly. I really appreciate it.”
It was my first fire, my first real one anyway, and I was glad I was getting some recognition.
“Even if I were actually starved, like actually starved, I wouldn’t buy one of those sandwiches,” she said. “That’s intense, Jules.”
For a few days I didn’t think much about the Jefferson Street house fire. The Norge Daily News kept me busy running around to drownings and shootings across the city, picking up reports from the station downtown.
I didn’t dwell on it much, but it seemed everyone else did. The people in Norge were scared, more so than ever, and they definitely had a right to be. I could see it in the way they stood — the broad-shouldered men in circles crushing beer cans in their hands and the cowering women, huddled together on the edges of their lawns. It was only mid-August, and already 20 shootings had happened in the city. Most of it gang violence, of course, but not all. And the drive-by shootings were the most frightening. One man was shot to death at night on his way out of McDonald’s, only one bite out of his 99-cent burger, still hot and fresh in his hand.
How do you stand all the death? My mom, an accountant where I grew up in suburban Boston, asked me one afternoon while I Skyped her at a picnic table during lunch. But the truth was, I didn’t always mind it. There was job life and there was life life. And shootings don’t always mean death, of course, there were only three homicides of those 20 shootings. Covering violence is exciting, horrible to say but it’s true. And there’s a certain distance a police reporter has to have, kind of like a doctor doing major surgery, who knows his patient might not survive — you can’t be attached to everyone you get to know.