“Fire on the River Why” by Clare Paniccia

Winner the 2011 Scribblers Prize at the University at Buffalo

He had once cared much for the look of his fingers. Each night, after watching the news, he had sat on the side of his bed with the clippers and carefully scraped underneath the edges of his nails, taking time to remove the dirt that had accumulated there from the construction site. It was the idea of cleanliness. His wife liked for him to touch her with unsoiled hands – she said it made her feel safe. That had been years ago, and now, as his fingers curled around the tarnished ball of the slot machine lever, he noticed he had not washed. The skin was blackened, the nails bitten and long, and as he pulled for each spin he felt the grease of the machine seeping out onto his palms. Liquid greed – as he ran his hands together, or wiped them on his pants, he felt the heat emanating from them, and wondered if the machine was infusing him with failure. The reels spun, revealing cartoon images of fruits and flags, always stopping just a fraction from the center of the dash. There they sat, jokingly watching him from their yellowed backgrounds, begging for him to tease them again, telling him silently that they would stop toying if only he fed them just a few more times. He would make the symbols promise, then fish two quarters from his pants, inserting them lovingly into the well-used slot. The reels flew, a whir of color, and despite his closed eyes, despite his crossed fingers, despite his intimate caresses of the lever, the slot never turned any tricks. It laughed, blew him a kiss, and asked for just one more spin. There had been an article published not long ago about a man down in the Carolinas who had pulled the triple sevens and won a million dollars. The figure seemed surreal in the paper, and probably even more so in life – a million dollars… He couldn’t even comprehend the idea. He had taken the paper that day and burned it in the sink, watching as the ashes fell over old, unwashed dishes and mugs half-full with coffee. As the fire alarm rang he sat by an open window, smoking a cigarette and watching the neighbors across the street pack for vacation.

Emily sat on the sofa, an open gardening magazine in her lap. Outside, weeds the height of the window glass tapped lightly upon the panes as the breeze jostled them to and fro.

“We need to do something about that lawn, Georgie. It’s just terrible now.” He opened his eyes, and remained silent, watching as the fan blades overhead spun counterclockwise against the graying ceiling.

“It’s just so full of weeds. I want it to look like it did when we first moved in, Georgie. Remember? We can get it back if we just work…” her words trailed off, and the room was filled with a thickened silence, cut only by the occasional deep breath from the opposite couch where he lay, hands folded against his chest. She flipped the magazine closed, setting it aside and looking off into the sunlight, her eyes focused not on the way it cut upon the carpet, but instead taking on the glazed look of someone entering a once-forgotten reverie. He watched the fan spin, counting the blades as they whizzed past. Particles of dust flew from their glossed surfaces, trailing down and floating listlessly in the hot summer air.

“Are you listening?” she asked quietly, her eyes still caught in the sun.

“No,” he answered.

Solace could be found in the casino hall, amidst the continuous jingles and blinking lights. Solace from Emily, from the telephone, from the overgrown lawn and from the television. Here, George had a favorite chair that sat warmly in front of his favorite machine, imprinted ever so faintly from his wrinkled khakis. There were few people in the hall late at night. He would sit silently, alone in the far corner of the room, entertaining his slot while the other machines watched enviously, whispering bribes of winnings if he would only just turn and try them on. However, George never strayed. He was a monogamous gambler – he honored his machine, his toy… one day, he knew, one day she would pay him for all the mistakes she had made, and he would forgive her with open arms.

“Care for a drink?”

He heard a noise, something far away, light and faint but he wasn’t sure if it had been real.

“Sir?”

“What?” he asked, turning, tearing, his head away from the reels. The symbols stopped, miles away from the center line.

“Sir, would you care for a drink?” a woman asked, gesturing to her empty tray. Her blouse, too tight for her middle-aged frame, spilled open to reveal freckled cleavage.

“No. No I would not,” George said hastily, waving her away and turning back to the machine. She stood for a moment, watching him, and in this time he did not move, conscious of her remaining presence.

“All right then.” She walked away, and George pulled out two quarters, examining them carefully in his hands before slowly pushing them into the slot. The machine whirred, the dials spun, the music played, and the grapes stopped. Silence. George sighed, and leaned back.

“Fetch,” he muttered, rubbing his knees.

The neighbors did not regularly see George and Emily, and had become accustomed to their continued absence at street-wide bar-be-que’s. Little word would be spoken of them, unless something had changed at their house – a misshapen shutter, a light on at a time that it would normally be dark… and a brief minute would be set aside for the couple that had once been vivacious and outgoing.

“You know, I sometimes wonder if old George killed her off,” Mr. Donovan muttered at a Labor Day cookout, stirring the potato salad with its serving spoon, “He has that demeanor. Quiet, softspoken – it’s always those ones that end up going insane.” There would be general amusement at the idea, but no belief. George had seemed, at least in his early days, a genuine man. The kind of guy you would take to baseball games, or to a car dealership for help at negotiating a price. Murder would be too bold a crime for George, too much of an outburst.

“Maybe she left him,” whispered Annie Dunn to Collette Petersen, “Maybe she got sick of him.”

“But how could that be?” Collette responded, “They’ve always seemed so happy.”

George and Emily had moved into the neighborhood a decade earlier, or so it seemed – no one kept track of the new arrivals, they just gauged how long people had lived between Oak and Elm. Their silence, their neglect of neighborhood fraternity had made their stay seem eternal, as the families always had something to mention about the two on every holiday.

“I think George got up one day and decided to have himself an adventure,” laughed Mr. Hunt, “Got a little of that road-hunger, if you know what I mean. He got tired of the routine and said ‘to hell with it’, and drove off down the highway.”

Every time George went to the casino hall, he would change over the cash he had withdrawn from the bank. The rolls of quarters he received in return seemed more valuable than the flimsy green paper – it was their weight, their sturdiness. The hard silver metal assured him that they were indeed real. That they were a hundred dollars worth of chances and that one of them, eventually, would be his twenty-five cent ticket to a new perspective. Sitting in front of his machine, he would spend time choosing which one to unwrap first. Then, after slipping the remaining coins into his pocket, he would insert the quarters two by two into the slot. Fifty cents, spin, lose. Fifty cents, spin, lose. Fifty cents, spin, lose. It was a sort of chant that circled throughout his mind as the machine jingled its dramatic music, and always the outcome was the same.

“The hall will be closing in twenty minutes,” droned a voice over the loudspeaker, echoing throughout the nearly empty casino. George looked to his palm, where the last two quarters of the night lay. They shone faintly in the dim lighting, their tarnished edges giving off a copper tinge that spoke of their mysterious existences. The quarters had been around since the thirties, from what George could make out on their worn surfaces, and now they had come to him. They had experienced decades of monetary exchange, and he wondered what their lives had held. What luck they had accumulated, whose hands they had touched, what states they had inhabited, and if they had ever been part of a sum so large that they had become relatively insignificant. He warmed the tokens between clasped palms and, taking a shaky breath, slowly dropped them into the machine’s mouth – a last morsel of food to try and please its ever-hungry, ever-empty stomach. George reached a feeble hand to the lever, felt its cool sturdiness beneath his fingers, and pulled with the intensity of someone trying to prove they had one shred of hope remaining in the face of such deafening odds. The reels spun, blurring the grapes, the elusive numbers, the cartoon depictions of insurmountable worth. He closed his eyes. The reels stopped. It was like getting a shot at the doctor’s office – only a moment of pain, but soon you were on your feet again, just as before…

George opened his eyes, and allowed them to adjust to the lighting. Before him, centered on the dash, was one sparkling red seven, isolated, solitary – without any numeral compatriots. No quarters had come from the machine, but George felt his heart swelling regardless – the seven gleamed like a rich jewel. It contemplated his worthiness from behind the glass. It brought with its appearance all the reassurance of a sporting coach cheering on his battered athlete. It asserted itself formidably, a challenge to his endurance. George stood and embraced the machine, feeling its cool metal vibration against his chest.

“You son of a bitch,” he whispered, a smile curling faintly at the corners of his mouth.

“You don’t love me anymore.”

Emily casually brushed his hair with her fingers, curling it over her knuckles, and winding it carefully behind his ear. George stared at her faded jeans, noted the ways the denim fell over her thin knees, and licked his lips.

“Georgie?” she asked, caressing his face. He sat rigidly. Her weight on his lap seemed to be slowly increasing.

“You used to love me, remember? Remember dinner out at The Blossom when you proposed? Georgie? I still keep my ring shiny, just like new…” She held her hand out in front of his eyes, turning the ring with a short, childlike thumb. He emitted a sort of muffled chuckle, and she clucked her tongue, brushing her hands along his cheeks.

“Emily, stop it.”

She leaned back and eyed him, her legs pushing heavily into his own as she adjusted her position.

“Stop what?”

He reached up a hand and removed her fingers from his face, placing them somewhat forcefully to her sides.

“Oh, Georgie,” she said, brushing his away his grasp and resuming her embraces. He sighed, and studied the plaid pattern on the couch.

On a windy fall day, Mr. Donovan’s car wouldn’t start. He paced around his driveway, checking under the hood for mechanical failure, but found none. Kicking aside a pile of leaves, he marched across his lawn, and over to George and Emily’s, taking care not to flatten the forest of overgrown grasses and weeds with his polished dress shoes. The house was dark, but Mr. Donovan persisted, knocking with a firm fist against the screen door. No one came to assist him. A light flickered on in an upstairs window, but was quickly put out. Mr. Donovan stared at the door, studied its peeling frame, and returned dejectedly to his house.

His favorite machine was placed next to another fifty-cent slot that favored images of birds and flowers. Its blue and green lights sparkled in an irregular pattern, and it often eyed George as he sat at his regular post. He could feel the slot beckoning him, calling his name in its annoying musical jingles, its un-pulled lever waiting for a lucky hand.

“Come,” it whispered, and George would stare at it in-between bets, contemplating its metal build. He watched as his mechanical spouse delivered yet another miss – a combination of fruits displaced just so from the line. There were no signs of the sevens, not even a corner, or the sharp angle of a side, showing anywhere on the dash. He sighed, wrapping a hand around the quarters waiting hopefully in his pocket.

“I shouldn’t,” he whispered, looking sideways at the temptation beside him, its lights pushing their glow onto the glossy side of his slot. He separated several coins from the pile, and held them before his eyes, watching as their silver skins changed faintly from blue to green in the dimness. He had never cheated. Not ever. The lever of his machine had become so fitted to his hand that whenever they connected he felt a fire within the pit of his stomach. His heart burned – the very thought of straying clung to his nerves with minute, childlike hands. It wasn’t a question of whether his machine would take him back. It would, she would… she always would, he knew. It was the separation of years of betting in one state – in one continual way. He closed his eyes. The days, the weeks, the years he had built up sitting on his ripping stool, in front of his slot, had to have accumulated into some sort of forthcoming wealth. Somehow. Changing machines… changing partners… it could ruin everything. It was like starting anew. His eyes watered, and he clenched the coins in his fist, gripping them tightly, feeling their roundness pressing against his palm. Extending his legs, he stood, and carefully moved one seat over, to the cold wooden stool alongside his now betrayed residence. George did not dare look at his love, his hope – he could feel the hot connection between them quickly severing. The blue and green lights flashed. Almost against his will, he raised his hand to the coin drop, and allowed the warmed discs to drop like heavy weights into the waiting, begging slot. George felt the lever, cold and foreign, in his clammy grasp. He looked away, and pulled.

“Let’s sail away, Georgie. Let’s get a boat, even if we can’t afford it, and just go.” He studied the carpet with tired eyes. It hadn’t been vacuumed in years. Its once forest-green hue now looked faded and grayed in the afternoon sunlight.

“Let’s go, Georgie.”

It was like an out of body experience. Somewhere in the distance, outside of the darkness surrounding his head, he could hear a buzzer sounding throughout the casino hall, its blaring bouncing off of the walls, off of the ceiling. It reverberated against his brain. It was a ridiculous sound. Couldn’t they turn it off?

“Sir, sir!” someone shouted from far away, “Sir!”

His shoulders were being shaken and before him he could see the slot machine, except its dash was blocked by a body, or maybe several bodies, hunched towards him. Hands slapped his arms, his legs. He was jostled about on the wooden stool. The quarters in his pockets spilled onto the floor.

“Jesus, this guy did it! Man, are you all right? Hey!”

The blue and green lights sparkled in the outskirts of his consciousness.

“He must be in shock!”

“Well, get him out of it! Wake him up!”

“Get some water!”

George was vaguely aware of a hand slapping lightly against his cheek. He reached up, and gently pushed the hand away.

“Emily, stop it…” he muttered.

“He’s talking!”

“Sir, sir! You’ve done it!”

He blinked, and became more aware of the bodies pressed tightly around him. The buzzer could still be heard, but just faintly so.

“Get away,” he wheezed, “Get away. You’re all too close.” He outstretched his hands, pressing into chests and legs, and slowly the people separated from his peripherals.

“Sir,” someone said, quietly, “Don’t you know what happened?”

“What?” asked George, rubbing his eyes.

“Sir… you’ve won.”

He was the same man he had always been. The afternoon sun still sprinkled flecks of dust upon the carpet. The weeds still brushed against the unwashed windows. The only difference was that now, instead of living as a poor man with no direction, he was now a rich man with nowhere to go. He sat idly on the living room sofa while Emily cooked in the evenings. The fan turned overhead. His hands rested plainly upon his knees. The casino hall seemed to be a conquered demon. A place he could never return to again. He had done it. He had built buildings with his bare hands when he was younger, he had set goals and he had completed them – lifting steel beams into foundations and setting bricks on the exteriors of offices. He had moved from lust for the prize to achieving it, and now he wondered what was left. What could he do? His machine still stood dejectedly in the hall, waiting for someone to use it again. The leather seat, ripped from his years of sitting just so, did not carry his impression any longer. George could feel the slight weight of the check in his shirt pocket, and he wished, watching the fan blades turn, that it he had never received it.

He had been napping in the bedroom when Emily found the note. A loud scream had emitted from the basement, slightly rousing him from his slumber, but hearing nothing more George slowly slipped back into his state of catatonia. Then, there had been a rush up the stairs, the sound of heavy feet ambling through the house. The bedroom door slammed open, and his eyes flickered.

“Georgie! Georgie! What is this, what is this! Tell me!” Emily stood in the doorway, the light blue check in hand, waving it excitedly in the air. He looked over and studied her for a moment, watching her bustline shake as she jumped, and he felt in the pit of his stomach a sense of disgust.

“You aren’t saying anything, Georgie!” She rushed to him, leaning on the bed, her eyes flying rapidly over the scrawl upon the figure line.

“A mil- Georgie, I can’t even say it… Are you listening? Talk to me!” He sat up, and took the check from her, touching it lightly as if it were going to poison him.

“I won it,” he said quietly, turning it over to read the fine print on the back.

“Where? At that casino you go to?”

“Yes.”

Emily sat quietly, watching as he grazed his fingers over the edges of the paper. A look of wonder had filled her eyes, and spread across her complexion. He could not stand to look at her.

“Georgie… what does this mean? Can we sell the house? Can we fix the lawn? Georgie! We need to do something! Let’s go somewhere! Italy! Venice! Paris! Oh, goodness Georgie, I would love to visit Paris…” She moved forward, resting her elbows on the mattress, arms pressing her breasts together absentmindedly.

“Yes,” he repeated, almost distantly, setting the check back upon the bedspread. Emily grabbed it, reading over the cursive again, as if she could not believe its existence. She leapt from the bed, waving the check as she twirled about the bedroom.

“They have dancing in Paris, Georgie… we could take dancing lessons and dance underneath the Eiffel Tower. Oh, how romantic!” Her eyes were closed, a look of wistful happiness displayed prominently across her features. George watched her from his position. His insides filled with dread. A dark, thick mixture of emotions penetrated his spine, and he felt his fingers folding into fists.

“What do you think?” she asked, returning to his side.

“I don’t know,” he responded.

“You never do,” she clucked, wiping the check against his cheek, as if it were a feather.

“Did you hear?” asked Mr. Donovan, swirling the beer in his glass.

“Hear about what?”

“George and Emily. He won the big bucks down at La Serveda. You know, the hotel?”

Mr. Hunt seemed to contemplate this, stroking the ends of his mustache.

“Oh yes,” he responded, “It’s what, maybe thirty minutes from here?”

“That’s not the point,” replied Donovan, “The point is, George came home one night with a million bucks. Can you believe it?”

“A millionaire for a neighbor…” mused Hunt, “And yet, nothing seems to have changed.”

There was a knock on the door. It was a foreign sound, and one that often went unanswered. The sound of heated voices could be heard from behind the screen, and suddenly the wooden entry was pulled open, revealing a somewhat harried looking occupant.

“Emily?” asked Annie Dunn. Emily stared for a moment, and then swung the door open wider, a smile flowing across her face.

“Oh, goodness!” she cried, pushing the screen and stepping out onto the porch, “I look a mess! How good to see you!” Annie laughed, and gestured to the tray in her hands.

“What is this?” asked Emily.

“Nothing, really. I just thought you and George would love some brownies. I’ve been in a baking mood, and I needed to give some away!” Annie handed the tray to Emily, watching her face as she did so. There was a silence, which Emily broke by sputtering her thanks. Annie waved a hand, and stepped down onto the concrete walk.

“It was nothing,” she said, “Anyway, feel free to call, Em! We’ve missed you!” She hurried to the road, but kept looking back every few steps, smiling and waving as she did so. Emily watched, still holding the tray as if she had never received a gift, until Annie had returned to her own home and successfully gotten inside.

“The neighbors are so nice,” sighed Emily over her coffee, staring out of the kitchen window, “Alan Hunt sent me this lovely letter yesterday. Did you see it?” She lifted a piece of paper off of the table, looking at it casually, before setting it in front of George. His eyes skimmed it briefly, taking note of the words ‘happy’ and ‘miss you’, before glancing back to the newspaper.

“We should have them over,” she continued, watching him. He did not respond, but instead kept his eyes upon the paper, although he failed to take in any of the information it supplied.  A silence cut into the atmosphere, weighing down the air with its thickened presence. George flipped a page, and sighed. The check was locked safely away in the bedroom dresser, yet he could not help but let his thoughts wander to it every few seconds. It was an ever-imposing existence, the check. It was the third occupant of the house. It breathed the air and fed off of George’s fear of it – he could almost sense its weight expanding as it lay folded in one of Emily’s old socks.

“Georgie, are you listening?”

“What?” he asked.

“I asked what you were going to do with that money.”

He bit his lip, and felt his wife’s questioning eyes boring into his soul. He wanted nothing more than to forget about that paper. That ticket. He closed his eyes, and tried to remember the casino before he had ravaged it. The machine he had always favored. The dim, inviting lighting that left him nestled within his own existence.

“Georgie!”

He looked to her, and angrily shrugged.

“I don’t know! Give me a break!” he shouted, standing, his chair pushed back somewhat forcefully. Emily studied him. He grabbed the newspaper, and retreated solemnly to the living room.

He had been a poor man with an ambition. Now, he was a rich man with nowhere to go.

Local news stations had been by the house, and though Emily had begged to go out in her best makeup and dress to tell the world she and her husband were changed and privileged people, George forbade her. She would whine, her whimpers filling the house with an agitated discomfort, but she would only look out of the covered upstairs window at the vans parked along their lawn, and whisper her practiced speech. Occasionally, George would see Mr. Donovan watching their house from his kitchen window, his hands slowly and mechanically drying dinner dishes, yet his mind elsewhere. George had become claustrophobic. He could feel the world looking in, watching him, evaluating him.

On a humid summer morning, the sound of a revving motor drifted up to the bedroom window. George, laying on his back but nowhere near a comforting slumber, rose from the bed and parted the curtains, glancing about the foliage below. He could see, towards the front of the house, a small boy with a lawnmower. The motor sputtered, and the boy pushed the mower into the weeds, covering his face as bits of grass flew in all directions. George felt his heart pound, and he ran from the window, hurrying down the stairs and towards the door.

“Georgie?” asked Emily from the kitchen. He ignored her, and stepped into the sunshine. Temporarily blinded, he yelled out in no particular direction, “Hey, hey!” The motor continued to run, and as his sight adjusted he climbed down to the walk and brushed through the tall grass toward the boy, who turned the mower off as soon as he caught sight of the older man.

“What is this!” cried George, gesturing to the cut grass, and the machine, “What are you doing?” The boy, no more than fourteen, stepped away, alarmed.

“It’s a lawnmower, sir,” he responded.

“I can see that, I’m not an idiot. What are you doing with it? Here? Who sent you here?”

“I came here, sir. I live down the street. I saw your grass and figured you wouldn’t mind a little trim.”

“A trim? Is that all? Wouldn’t mind?”

“No, sir…”

“No, sir, what? Speak up, boy! What is this about!”

“Well, I thought…”

“Thought what!”

“Well, sir, I thought that if I cut your lawn you would maybe be willing to compensate me for my ti-”

“Compensate? Compensate! Get the hell out of here! Get this thing off of my lawn. Get out!” George grabbed the mower and pushed it toward the street. The boy raced after it, and dragged it away, hurriedly rushing back to where he had come from. Kicking the grass, George watched the boy until he had gotten a safe distance from their house.

“Jesus,” he hissed through his teeth. He was surrounded by the weeds. Small flowers growing on the ends of the grasses bent towards him in the breeze.

“Jesus!” he cried, grabbing hold of the greenery and pulling it angrily, its roots snapping in the ground. He let go, and stood still, his breathing heavy and labored.

Emily had gone to Mr. Hunt’s. He could see her through the kitchen window, her dress freshly pressed and her hair curled. Alan talked with her jovially, always glancing back towards George’s house, a drink in his hand a grin on his face. Emily laughed every so often, showing her teeth, and her carefully lined lips. George felt sickened. Alan chuckled along with her, and George watched as his gaping, mustache-lined mouth formed silent words that meant nothing. He pulled the check from his shirt pocket, having taken it from the drawer, and read over the script. It had become slightly faded from its prolonged existence, and yet it seared itself more strongly into his mind. He had been a poor man, and now he was a rich man… George rubbed his fingertips against the check’s edges, feeling the still-sharp points pressing into his skin. The quarters had been heavier. The quarters had been decades old, and had told stories. Had wished him luck. Had sat inconspicuously in his pocket and sang to him when he walked about. This paper… it laughed. Its cursive presence was intimidating. It was humiliating. He had been a poor man… and now…

George walked to the sink, and held the check over the dishes. His heart beat into his eardrums, and from his pocket he pulled a lighter.

“You son of a bitch,” he whispered, and the paper went up into flames, dropping its ashes into the metal basin. He watched it crisp, he watched it fade – and the paper ate itself inside out, blackened and disintegrated. Emily’s laugh could be heard from across the street. George returned to the window, lighting a cigarette, and watching her, yet not, as the smoke curled round his head.

Profile: Clare Paniccia

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