Smoke

PHOTO by Jens Johnson on Unsplash.com

FLASH Writing Challenge 100 – Day 7

Isabelle knew there were, at least three, homeless men living behind the library. She didn’t want to encourage it, but she had adopted the habit of personally taking her partially eaten lunch out to the dumpster each day. She would talk to herself as she walked the triple bagged sack of barely touched food to the dumpster that sat near the alley.

“Isabelle! What were you thinking? Ordering such a big lunch? AGAIN!”

Day after day it was like this. The lunch orders got even bigger. Then the three bites of it eaten, then carefully wrapping the remainder in three grocery store bags so that it wouldn’t come into contact with any refuse while it was in the dumpster.

Their tiny camp was just around the fence in the alley, beyond the dumpster. They had done their best to camouflage it, but they were fooling no one. Isabelle would put on her little one-woman monologue as she took her daily leftovers to the dumpster day after day. There was enough food in that bag to feed all three of them at least one decent meal. On Saturdays, because the library was closed on Sunday, she would throw in a second bag of sandwiches, submarine sandwiches, chicken wings, or whatever it was she thought they might like to eat.

Isabelle hoped that they, at least, wouldn’t starve to death.

Then it had gotten cold. Colder than it had been in years. This called for bigger actions. So she drove her jeep from the employee parking lot in front of the library, into the alley. She parked the jeep next to the dumpster as she muttered aloud about her spring-cleaning, and how had she ever managed to collect so many blankets? The blankets had all been folded and individually wrapped in oversized garbage bags.  

She gently deposited the three sacked blankets in the dumpster. Then she cleared her throat loudly and began talking to herself about what on earth had possessed her to buy all these gloves.

She steps back from the dumpster and tries one of the absurdly large gloves on. Then, laughing at herself, she said, “Well no wonder these don’t fit me! These are men’s gloves.”

That had gotten them through a week, but then the snow came, and it got even colder. Near zero degrees cold. Isabelle knew the men in the little sadly disguised shanty constructed out of pallets, newspapers, plastic bags, and cardboard boxes would not be able to last the night. So on Saturday, as she delivered her accidental double lunch ‘leftovers’ to the dumpster (“I told them one number six combo, ha! They gave me six number one combos! I really need to be more careful!”) She hears the men rustling about in their shelter.

“Well, I sure hope no one breaks into the library this weekend. The alarm man said with all the power outages he wouldn’t possibly be able to get by here until Thursday! And the backdoor doesn’t even lock properly anymore. Oh dear,” she said.

The men always stayed out of sight. Isabelle’s theatrics aside, they were grateful for her kindness.

She had hoped they wouldn’t make an awful mess of the library basement and resolved to come in extra early Monday morning and clean whatever might need cleaning after they left the warmth of the basement and returned to their shelter for the day.

She sure hopes they are out of the basement when she opens the library on Monday morning.

When she unlocked the front door Monday morning, she was sure to be extra loud with her steps. And as always, her internal monologue was always spoken aloud, for their benefit.

She stomps across the wooden floor to the basement door, rattles the ancient knob loudly.

“Is this old thing stuck again?” She swings the door open, and it crashes loudly into the wall behind, knocking several public notices free from the community forum bulletin board. She sees a dim light in the far recesses of the basement extinguish as the three men vacate the basement for their shelter, softly closing the basement door behind them.

Isabelle descends the steps and sees everything is as it should be with one exception. Here on the floor, where the recently imprinted carpet shows three bodies had slept, was a book. She picks it up. One of the books from fiction upstairs. “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” one of Isabelle’s favorites. She smiles at the book and makes a mental note to return it here before she leaves the library this afternoon. For lunch today, she thinks chicken wings. All men love those, right?

Tuesday, came and went the same way. It was roast beef sandwiches, with extra orders of curly fries that she’d over-ordered that day.

Wednesday it had gotten colder. It was fried chicken and biscuits on Wednesday.

“Damn that company! Telling me they won’t be able to service our alarm system until next Tuesday at the earliest?! Bunch of crooks if you ask me,” she says theatrically to herself as she gently deposits the aluminum foil-wrapped bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken into the top of the dumpster.

“Extra crispy? Who eats extra crispy chicken? I clearly said ‘original recipe!’ Damn kids!”

Thursday morning, Isabelle unlocked the heavy wooden door and a thick, acrid smoke had poured out of the library. The smoke was so thick. She panicked. What had she done? She would surely lose her job now. It was a cute, open secret with Isabelle’s absurd number of daily trips to the dumpster. Everyone knew. The men in the encampment knew, her coworkers knew, her bosses knew, but she would be in serious trouble if there had been a fire.

She wraps her mouth and nose with a handkerchief, stomps down the stairs, and opens the basement so that it can begin to slowly empty of smoke.

The three men had tried to start a small fire in the wood-burning stove. But the stove exhaust pipe had been hopelessly clogged for years. The stove had been out of commission ever since. And so the smoke just billowed about in the basement, filling it, seeping up through cracks under the door, cracks in the ventilation system, nearly filling the upstairs as well.

She finishes airing out the basement and the first floor. Isabelle pulls in some branches from the refuse bin outside and sets several of them in the stove, she lights some newspaper and waits for the smoke. She douses the fire out with a vase of water.

It had been her fire. She had forgotten about the exhaust pipe. ‘Hey I’m almost 72 you know, we forget things,’ she would whine later if anyone pressed her.

She sits down on the basement couch and waits for her coworkers to arrive. Her eye catches on something on the floor, between the three carpet indentations where the men had slept again. It’s a note. She slowly gets up, fetches the letter that had been neatly written on the back of an expired playbill, the local high school drama club’s production of ‘Our Town.’

‘Dear Miss Isabelle, Thanks so much for the many kindnesses you’ve given us these past weeks. You saved our lives. Luckily, my son has reconnected with me and I’ll be staying with him until I get back on my feet. I told LeRoy he can stay with us for a while. Kenny said he’d heard word about a new shelter opening in Raleigh so we’re dropping him there today. Thanks for being our angel when we needed one. We hope you never know how desperate we were.’

Then it’s signed by the three men. The men she had fed, sheltered, and kept from dying for two months. Anthony, Leroy, and Kenny.

Underneath the playbill were 17 crumpled, grease-stained, dollar bills and 37 cents in change, Three dimes, a nickel, two pennies. Isabelle stands up, her eyes already glistening.

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