Fire and Lace
Jillian Graham admired her purchase again, then gently handed down her newest bra-and-panty set to her beloved lingerie collection, now in piles on the dining room carpet. Straightening, she beamed at the swath of contrasting colors. The entire left side of the room, between table and wall, was lined with nylon camisoles and half slips, stylishly slinky nightgowns and robes, yards of lace and flounce, and silks and satins that shimmered in the late morning sun shining through the windowpane. Scattered throughout were mounds of lift, support, and shapeliness.
She emptied the last dresser drawer and carried it over to the other drawers that stood in hip-high towers near the apartment’s front door. Today, her old bedroom furniture was on its way out, with new scheduled to arrive.
Back at the dining room table, Jillian gathered up three sheets of Mystiques’ trademark tissue paper in passionate pink. She visited the boutique often. Jillian could not purchase from the store’s in-stock styles. Larger sizes must be special ordered. Sadly, Mystiques offered nothing in the boyfriend department. Jillian’s dating life was lean to non-existent.
She firmly believed her dream man would fall madly and irreversibly in love with her if he could only see the silken contents of her underwear drawer. Well, drawers, in her case. Six of them. Not to overwhelm, she’d leave one open, maybe two, with a garment dripping in lace exposed. She envisioned this beefy-sized man wandering into her bedroom alone, drawn in by that special something sprinkled over fairy-tale endings. A sensitive man with any amount of imagination would recognize just how sexy she was beneath the surface, just a thin layer of fabric away.
But how to lure her lumberjack home, a necessary precursor to the bedroom rendezvous? She laid a finger on pursed lips, feeling them curl into a smile. By early afternoon, the biggest hurdle—the white princess-style furniture with the scalloped and gold-trimmed highlights she used as a child—would be rolling back to her hometown and the bedroom of her five-year old niece.
Betsy and Phil Johnson, her sister and brother-in-law and little Maggie’s parents, were driving up in Phil’s father’s vintage 1974 Chevrolet Impala wagon. Jillian dragged the bedroom suite to Lakewood five years ago after accepting a position at Lake Erie Publications. With the bonus she earned from her magazine-layout job, she shopped for new. By day’s end, her little pretties would all be tucked away in their new cherrywood home where rosebud-printed paper would line drawers spiced with lavender-scented sachets.
Jillian turned to inspect her apartment. She wanted it somewhat neat since she’d be entertaining Betsy and Phil for lunch. The cloth-covered table, living room couch, and hand-me-down leather recliner were all clothing-free.
Phil had been family for nearly a decade, longer if you counted the years Betsy and he dated. Jillian and her brother-in-law were close, with hockey, movies, and long discussions about her sister’s vacillating moods in common. She had no qualms about Phil seeing her unmentionables. He accepted that she was a lingerie junkie with no equal.
The sound of a car horn drifted through the open second-floor window. Jillian peered out. Lanky Phil was out of the ancient station wagon. He tapped the roof rack on an energetic walk to open the rear door. He grasped a stack of mover’s blankets waiting in the cargo area as Betsy’s voice streamed—in its grating fashion—through Jillian’s window screen.
“What are you doing? Don’t do that now.”
Betsy closed the car door behind her. She gripped the handles of the quilted carryall packed with a pan of their mother’s homemade lasagna. An hour ago, Jillian talked with her mother by telephone. A sleeping Maggie had been laid in her arms early this morning, in exchange for the luncheon repast.
Older sister Betsy swam gracefully out of the family’s gene pool with their father’s slimness and their mother’s petite height. Jillian took the leavings. Stretched to five-nine, she inherited her mother’s taste for rich, decadent desserts. Too many desserts stretched her waistline as well. Throughout their sisterhood, Betsy’s disagreeable nature clashed with Jillian’s fiery-when-provoked temper.
Jillian thought back to her Christmas visit home. She’d just climbed out of her car when Phil came huffing out of the house, pinning her with a heated glare.
“I swear, someday—” He bit off the unspoken threat. His better angels helped him choose the words that came next. “I tell myself, just walk away, Phil. Just walk away.”
“You really ought to deck her. I would,” Jillian shouted after him. “Without a second thought.”
In her heart, Jillian held two convictions to be true: Phillip Johnson would never, never harm his wife, and she, Jillian Graham, would never, never become a Bossy Betsy if a man ever entered her life.
Jillian watched Betsy step over the curb to the grassy strip, still focused on her husband’s activities.
“Leave the pads inside, and close that up,” she barked.
Upstairs, Jillian left her perch at the window. She heard the wagon’s rear door close as she crossed the floor. The sound spoke to Phil’s passive compliance.
“That’s the way to get through this,” Jillian muttered under her breath. “Don’t be a moron. Follow his lead.”
She pushed through her apartment door and buzzed left toward the stairs. She could beat them to the apartment house’s main entrance and throw open the door before they rang the buzzer. Then she heard a sound she recently learned to loathe. Behind her, air was forcibly squeezed from a metal tube. Before she could react, her apartment door’s latch scraped across the jamb’s strike plate. Jillian’s long arm reaching for the banister fell limp to her side. She was locked out for the sixth time in ten days.
Robotically, she rerouted herself and stamped across the hall to Evie Hendricks’ apartment.
Evie answered the knock and easily read the look on Jillian’s face. Evie was a little bit of a woman. A little bit plump. A little bit opinionated. And a little bit lifesaver. “Oh, dear,” the latter said, raising a hand to her cheek. “Not again.”
“Betsy and Phil pulled up. I forgot and just ran out the door.”
“That’s right. Today’s the day,” the seventy-seven-year old retired home economics teacher said. She was a confidant in Jillian’s life.
Jillian frowned up at the automatic closure arm. The building’s maintenance man installed one on every apartment door. When Evie went to retrieve the spare key, Jillian stood in her stead, stubbornly preventing the offensive device from doing its duty.
The younger woman studied the older woman’s shuffling gait to the mahogany writing desk. She was pleased to see Evie had no problem remembering in which drawer her neighbor’s key was stored, no problem distinguishing the item she sought. Lately, she noticed some confusion on Evie’s part. On a whim, she decided to issue a simple test.
“Liz gets home tonight,” she said declaratively, referencing an event known to the older woman. Evie and Jillian shared the second floor with Liz Turner. A framed photograph of Liz and Evie—one Jillian took, framed, and given as a gift—rested on the desk. Liz was a raven-haired beauty whose job required travel. When Jillian stopped to chat earlier in the week, Evie’s mind still believed Susie Crenshaw lived next door, not Liz, her neighbor of seven years.
Evie’s eyes brightened. “Parlor night, then the unveiling.”
Jillian breathed easier. Parlor night was a post-Susie tradition; the unveiling translated to Evie’s and Liz’s premiere look at the new furniture.
As Evie re-crossed the room, she seemed to bring an inviting aroma with her.
Jillian sniffed the air and smiled. “Vegetable soup?”
“Beef vegetable, and on its way to a long, flavorful simmer,” Evie said, using an mmm-mmm tone.
Jillian visualized the ages-old pot on the back burner, its lid askew.
The three women developed an instant rapport after Jillian moved north and settled in. Calling the carpeted rectangular room onto which all their apartments fed “the parlor” was Evie’s suggestion. The old-fashioned term came off the elder’s lips as naturally as the tide rolling to the shore. Decades younger, Jillian and Liz might have chosen common area or lounge, but they went with Evie’s tag. And besides, they liked the sound of parlor night.
Tonight, the parlorettes, as they referred to themselves, would make the transformation. On end, Evie’s round table rolled slickly through the doorway. The chairs followed. Her door would be propped against a heavy cookbook to facilitate easy access to her kitchen. Through Liz’s door came the ambience, thanks to her Bose stereo speakers. Wheeled into place to hold Jillian’s door ajar would be her portable TV on its garage-sale stand; a chick flick, their dinnertime entertainment.
Jillian slipped the spare key into the lock. As soon as she cracked the door, she heard the downstairs buzzer. She crammed her upper body through the opening to finger the nearby intercom panel. “Coming, guys. Just a minute,” she sang out.
She grabbed an empty dresser drawer off the closest stack and wedged it between door and jamb, returned the borrowed key, and gave Evie a peck on her warm, wrinkled cheek.
Jillian felt certain her sister would comment on how she sounded like a herd of oxen on the stairs. Which she had. But when she opened the door, she found Betsy, smiling serenely, hanging on her husband’s arm. She handed out the pouch of lasagna as if her part had been more than just pickup and delivery. Betsy owned charm when she wanted to use it. The problem was, her charm and her moodiness changed positions as rapidly as a swinging door.
In the tiny entrance hall of Jillian’s apartment, she made a move toward the kitchen, announcing her intention to put the lasagna in to reheat.
“No,” Betsy said. “Give it to me.”
“Why?” Jillian wanted to know, but made the exchange.
Betsy cocked her head toward the bedroom. “You two go decide on a plan of attack. After we’re done with the furniture, we’ll sit, talk, and be civilized while the lasagna heats.”
Phil and Jillian shrugged at each other. How could they argue with that?
With very little fuss, they maneuvered the long, side-by-side dresser, its mirror detached, to the apartment entrance, then set it down.
“Got your key?” Phil asked.
Jillian patted her jeans pocket. She informed her visitors of the auto-locking device; the key needed only in the event of a misfire. Guided-missile Betsy was pulling duty as door matron. She jammed a rolled-up newspaper under the door to hold it wide.
The threesome maneuvered the dresser down the stairs without mishap. They stood in a loose knot, peering into the old Chevy’s cargo hold while the gutted dresser waited on the sidewalk. An envious Jillian took in the dimensions. They appeared longer and wider than the floor space in her bathroom.
“I say we go get the drawers for this, then load it in on this side. If we unscrew the legs, there ought to be room for the nightstands to go one behind the other over here.” Phil and his precise engineer’s eye discerned the measurements.
“No, let’s get all of it down here first,” Betsy objected. “You’ll have an easier time judging when everything’s in front of you. Otherwise, you’ll have pieces in and out multiple times until you get it right. And who knows how many scratches and dings that will add.”
Betsy’s last word fueled Jillian’s anger. She’d shown this furniture extreme care. Each piece was pristine. Jillian was ready to tell her sister just that when her brother-in-law choked her comment off with an attempt to ground his wife.
“Hon, I’m sure—”
“Phillip, no. Listen to me for once,” Betsy said, adamant. “And besides, that dresser may need to be loaded on top.”
Phil’s laughter burst out. Betsy’s ludicrous suggestion stunned Jillian, who looked from the dresser to the roof rack. Phil began spouting calculations about wind speed and gas consumption due to a complete lack of aerodynamics.
The bickering went on for a moment more. Over the years, Jillian wisely learned to keep her opinions to herself when these two discussed life’s little obstacles. She was much more adept at consoling a wounded Phil when the battle was over, than negotiating a truce.
Forty-five minutes later, the tall narrow chest, bed rails, mirror, nightstands, and headboard joined the long dresser. They looked like an odd grouping of very pale people waiting at a bus stop. The tie-downs and padded blankets lay scattered in the grass.
Jillian hated to admit it, but Betsy was right. It helped to have all the pieces together. And, just eyeballing it, Phil was right. The larger pieces would all fit inside.
Before one stick of furniture left the concrete for loading, a low-scale argument between husband and wife warmed again, so Jillian decided to walk back inside and do the same for the lasagna.
Deep in thought, she trudged up the stairs. During the first year of their marriage, the three of them—and she had been honored to be included—were an acronym for one of her favorite food combinations. P B and J. Phil, Betsy, and Jillian. Peanut butter and jelly. The sticky ingredients meant cohesiveness then. Now, the sticky equaled prickly. Nuts had been added to the peanut butter. Feeling more disappointed than ever over their prolific battles, she wiggled the newspaper free and let the door lock behind her.
Since she didn’t plan on returning to help with the furniture, she dug the keychain out of her pocket. It and the newspaper were laid on the lamp table next to the couch.
She got halfway down the hall to the kitchen when a high-pitched screech stopped her. She backtracked. It took only a few steps toward the open living room window to realize the sound was not blaring up from the street. She rushed the apartment door and pulled it open.
Immediately, squealing decibels assaulted her eardrums. She ran to Evie’s door. The scent of smoke hovered around it. Panicked, she cried Evie’s name and pounded repeatedly on the locked door. When Evie didn’t answer, she tried to shake the door from its hinges. She forced herself to break off the futile effort to call nine-one-one. Get help coming first, then try rescue.
She lunged for her own apartment door. It wouldn’t budge. She slapped at her pants pocket. The key wasn’t there. Her heart fell. She was trapped in the parlor, unable to complete the rescue, unable to phone in the emergency. Swearing, she spun and raced back to revive her pounding. Only seconds passed before a haggard-looking Evie released the lock. Strands of pewter hair escaped her eternally neat bun.
Jillian straight-armed the door as she looked the elderly woman up and down. “Are you all right?” she yelled.
Evie gave a meager nod and pointed toward the back of the apartment. “The soup. I can’t turn off the burner.”
“Have you called the fire department?”
Frustration flashed onto Jillian’s face when Evie shook her head. Jillian, determined to keep hers, found a cookbook in the tiny wooden case just inside the door and used it as a doorstop. Evie’s two claw-like hands grasped Jillian’s arm when she rose and dragged her haltingly into the apartment.
“We’ve got to call nine-one-one,” Jillian said, looking around. “Where’s your phone?”
Evie ignored the question. She tugged Jillian toward the gray haze and that awful screaming.
Behind the smoke was fire. The entire disaster was confined to the gas stovetop, where a dish towel slowly burned. The soup was a lost cause, and probably the hefty pot, a portion of it now charred black. On other occasions, Jillian noticed how Evie used the stove’s narrow, flat ledge above the dials as a shelf. Plastic milk jugs would sit there containing either water, milk, or broth, whatever the recipe demanded. Either heat from the fire or steam off the soup caused today’s jug to lose its shape and balance. The malformed jug was now wedged between the old stove’s angled control panel and the blackened pan, barricading the burner knob, the flaming towel out front.
Jillian pushed a flustered Evie toward the kitchen’s wall-mounted phone. She took precise steps as she set out, careful not to trip over a broom and dustpan abandoned on the floor. The alarm itself bellowed from a point directly over Jillian’s head. In near rage with the confounded contraption, Jillian grabbed the broom and rammed the handle into the device. The battery compartment fell open, disabling the horn.
“Thank God,” she exclaimed.
The silence was profound until the smell of burning plastic overpowered it. Jillian turned. In the elapsed seconds, the melting jug shifted position. It now hung over the flaming towel.
Reaching out with the wooden broom handle, she held her breath and edged the burning terrycloth away. The broom handle was smoking, but not lit, when she pulled it back. The jug still blocked the burner knob. The broom seemed unwieldy for the angle she needed to dislodge the jug without bouncing it on the floor. She couldn’t pull the pot away because the jug would fall into the gas flame. Before she made a move, she was shouldered painfully aside by a fireman.
Jillian’s already-taut nerves snapped along with her neck. She opened her mouth to object to the rough treatment, but his words filled the space between them.
“Get out of here. Burning plastic gives off toxic fumes. Older people are especially at risk.” The scolding fireman tipped his head Evie’s direction.
The tight flame-retardant hood he wore exposed a tangle of tawny hair. His own breathing mask dangled beneath his chin, apparently yanked off for the express purpose of chewing her out. He appeared heroic, though, holding a babe-in-arms fire extinguisher trained on the flames. Jillian, on the other hand, cradled a witch’s broom while over in the corner, Evie cowered. Jillian viewed the heart-wrenching sight. Her friend turned feeble right before her eyes.
When the fireman shouted, “Go,” she jumped to action, dropping the broom. The order was punctuated by a blast from the extinguisher.
Convincing Evie she needed to escape the poisonous atmosphere spreading through her apartment wasn’t easily accomplished. Evie’s unsteady footsteps and contrary attitude made progress agonizingly slow.
A blue-uniformed paramedic arrived in the doorway just as Evie’s knees started to fold. The female paramedic rushed forward. Between the two of them, they ferried Evie to the couch. Her breathing was labored, her cheeks flushed. Jillian’s eyes began to sting. It soon became apparent nothing short of tying Evie to a gurney would move her out of the building.
In a flash, Jillian made a decision. “Let’s go to my place, Evie. Please.” To the paramedic: “I’m right across the hall.”
She nodded at the plan, then took the lead. Standing back, Jillian watched the metamorphosis. The paramedic placed Evie’s hand gently between both of hers and introduced herself as Roberta. Leaning in, she added, “But the guys call me Bert.” Her eyes sparkled in a way that said Evie was just let in on a delicious secret. Instantly, the paramedic and the reluctant widow became chums.
“I’m locked out of my apartment,” Jillian said to Bert, “but Evie has a key. I’ll be right behind you.”
That drew a second nod. Bert, then, raised a compliant Evie from her seat and turned her toward the door.
Jillian spun toward the desk. Her hand was clasped on the drawer pull when the fireman appeared in her face. His hood was off. He raked fingers through thick, damp hair.
“We need to clear this smoke. Have you got any fans?” The inquiry came with a sharpness that said, since you’re still around mucking up the situation, you might as well be useful in rectifying it.
Behind him, Jillian observed another fireman setting Evie’s big box fan on the kitchen table, directing it toward the opened window. The questioning fireman’s long, soot-stained coat hung open. A snug undershirt clung to his muscled torso. A ray of refracted sunlight winked off one of the coat’s metal closure buckles, the kind that peeled back to release. She decided to work the same magic on his middle finger. It was curled around the desk’s front edge and prevented her from sliding out the lap drawer. A little backwards pressure did the trick. He yanked his hand away and rose to full height.
“I’ve just about got your first assignment under control,” she said curtly. “I suppose I can tackle another.” She plucked the key ring out of the drawer. “Thank God I’m here.”
Turning, she hurried into the parlor. It held all the congestion of rush-hour traffic. Additional emergency personnel were positioning a wind-tunnel-sized fan on the landing. Its low-slung profile would suck the smoky haze through its blades and blast it—and hopefully the odor—down the staircase and out the apartment building’s wide-opened door.
After Jillian unlocked her apartment, Bert led Evie to the couch. She sank heavily into it and argued that Jillian’s door be propped. She wanted to see the activity going on at her place. Jillian didn’t want Evie agitated further, so she wedged the folded newspaper under the opened door.
Out in the parlor, a bulldog of a firemen said, “Hal, when can we get out of here?”
Hal was the man who liked issuing orders. Evidently, he also ran the show.
“What, you think your hotshot chili is going somewhere?” Hal gave his colleague a genuine smile. The brusqueness she knew softened. “You’re out of here in five,” he said, pressing his left palm and long, straight fingers into the air.
Jillian’s single status was so engrained that she immediately took inventory. No wedding ring. Hmm, she thought, beginning to drool. She had to admit Hal was actually a good-looking hunk.
“Bert and I can grab the fan on our way out,” Hal informed Bulldog. He noticed Jillian in the doorway. Immediately, his expression soured.
She spun away and focused on Evie. Around an oxygen mask, the older woman’s color improved. “Is she better?” she asked, hopeful.
“Her breathing rate’s down. Pulse is good. I believe she’ll make it,” Bert said, sitting back on her heels.
Evie recognized the teasing tone and smiled up at Jillian, whose nose went into the air.
Smoke was gathering. She thought cross-ventilation might dissipate the pungent odor, and set off to raise the living room window higher. Halfway there, she took a stutter step. “What happened to Phil and Betsy?”
“Oh!” Bert said. “I’m sorry. I promised to tell you. A man was trying to get inside when I arrived. Must have been Phil. A fireman held him back. I told him not to worry. My presence was merely precautionary. No one was reported hurt.”
Jillian threw up the window sash. The scene down on the street was destined to be a Phil and Betsy classic. The station wagon was barricaded all around by emergency vehicles. A second company had arrived, raising the total to two engines and one squad. In true Betsy fashion, she’d commandeered all the excess personnel and put them to work toting and loading, padding and angling. When Jillian saw her sister point from the long dresser to the roof rack, she missed Phil. She craned her neck and looked down the street. There was Phil, hands in his pockets, his pace a slow stroll.
With a shake of her head, she left the window and went to stand over Evie and Bert. The blood-pressure cuff was off and lay folded on the cushion.
Bert’s hand patted Evie’s. “Good job,” she praised. “Another few minutes with the oh-two, and you’ll be good to go.”
With that, Evie’s eyes drifted left of Jillian. Simultaneously, a startling “Hey!” drilled Jillian’s back.
She whipped around to find Hal standing there, arms akimbo.
“Fans?” he said through clenched teeth.
He was stripped down to just the undershirt and a nifty pair of suspendered britches. She gave a second and a half to admiring his well-built, six-foot-tall body, then proceeded to return his steely glare. “There’s a pedestal fan in corner of the dining room. Get it yourself.”
His head came up, but his mouth stayed closed. Dismissively, she turned her back. After her heart pounded two, maybe three beats, she sensed he went to fetch the fan.
That’s when it hit her.
Her eyes flew wide. With all that happened, she completely forgot the lingerie lovelies laid out on the dining room floor. She whirled, pressing her fingers to her lips.
Where the two rooms met, Hal stood stock still. Time stretched. Jillian realized her lifelong fantasy was playing out. Poor Hal had not been exposed to just a garment or two, but injected with a full dose. She watched in awe.
His head tilted. He gave the slightest peek behind him, then slowly rotated. His face was a study in astonishment; his regard for her, a speechless dip beneath the surface. When he came up for air, his chocolate eyes melted. He pulled her over with a flirtatious tip of his head. She made the trip with a slice of sexy in the strut.
Over by the couch, four ears were fully tuned in, so he stepped closer and managed an intimate tone.
“You wear this?”
Her response was not just a nod, not just one word, but the two usually reserved for a church-filled event, one that would require the purchase of a strapless white bra. Batting her eyes adoringly, she said, “I do.”
He caught her meaning and produced a broad grin, one she knew she could never again live without.
From that day forward, all was fire and lace between them.