CENTERFOLDS ON FIRE
By Anne Skalitza
"Imagine," Carole Anderson sniffed into the phone, "a fire at that dive. Four o'clock this morning." She listened to her friend's reaction while she studied her perfectly clean fingernails. "Well, I'll tell you, Theresa, my Robert inspects Centerfolds every few weeks and says no matter what they do, it's a firetrap. They've closed it down several times but the girls — you know, the dancers with those paste-ons or whatever they're called — cried poverty. Said they live for the tips the patrons give them. Patrons, huh. Bunch of sleazy guys, you ask me." She paused and shrugged. "What else are they then. Certainly not gentlemen. Anyway, they put a few fire safety things in that place and let them reopen. That place should have been closed years ago." Carole sniffed loudly. "Robert must be over there now since he's on the graveyard shift at Hook and Ladder. I hope he's okay. No, he didn't call me. I heard all about it on the police scanner. It damn woke me up. The fire started in the back, near the trash, and went through the open door." She looked up at the kitchen light fixtures she cleaned yesterday. "Oh, I hate having that scanner on, squawking at all hours but at least I know where he is. A lot of wives have not a clue where their husbands are." Carole tucked the phone between her shoulder and ear and began scrubbing the sink with Ajax while she listened to her friend. She nodded and said, "See? That's why I encouraged him not to retire. Now you have Luther hanging around the house and he's never too tired to go out with his buddies. How do you know what he's up to? Why, he could be at a place like that Centerfolds putting bills in some girl's g-strap!" Carole heaved a sigh. "Okay, g-string. Whatever. I have no need to know those things. Nor would I care to." She rinsed the sink and eyeballed the stove top, but her need to clean was interrupted by the doorbell. "Theresa? I have to go. Whoever would be at my front door at this ungodly hour, I have not a clue. Bye."
She clicked the phone off and threw it on the table, annoyed at being interrupted from her phone conversation and her cleaning, both of which sustained her days. In the front hallway she looked into the mirror that hung over a litter box that was only used for wet boots and umbrellas. Smoothing down her short champagne blond hair, then making sure her blouse was neatly tucked into her khaki pants, she answered the door, keeping the chain on just in case. After all, she was a tiny, good-looking woman who was once Miss Junior Mintz (Mintz being the name of the town she was born, raised, and still living in). Daylight only now peeked through the trees in the east, so who knew what perverts were lurking outside her windows, trying to get at her.
Someone on the other side held up ID and a police shield. "Mrs. Anderson? It's Officers Mike Malone and Steve Bryziski. May we come in?"
Carole fixed a wide smile on her carefully made-up face, glad that she had applied two coats of mascara and an extra dose of lip gloss this morning. She always prided herself in being fully dressed and ready to face the world, even if most of the world in her time zone was still sleeping.
She slid the chain off and opened the door wide, waving the officers in, then looked down the street to see if anyone noticed the police entering her house. She, Carole Marie Anderson, was a friendly, upstanding citizen whom the public service people loved to visit. She even had friends who were rabbis and priests and Jehovah's Witnesses. All — well, almost all — were welcomed.
Officer Malone cleared his throat. "I think you'd better sit down, Mrs. Anderson."
Carole's brilliant high-glossed smile dimmed, but only slightly. "Well, why don't I bring us all some refreshing lemonade first," she enthused. She began to move toward the kitchen when he lightly touched her arm. "I think you'd better sit right now."
Carole positioned herself demurely on the sofa. The officers took the armchairs that flanked her. Besides talking and cleaning, Carole was good at reading faces, and what she saw made her gasp. Her hands flew to her face, her eyes widening as the reason for their visit finally sunk in. "Is it about Robert? Oh no. Oh no. He's injured fighting that horrible fire at that sleazy place, right?" She twisted her two carat diamond ring back and forth. "I heard it on the scanner early this morning. I can't sleep when there's a fire call. Oh I knew it! He said it was a firetrap, all those curtains. Didn't he have on his turn-out gear and that breathing equipment?"
"We can discuss that later," Officer Bryziski said. "We're sorry, but your husband is critically injured. We'll take you to the hospital."
Carole nodded and quickly got up, her legs wobbly. She returned a few minutes later with her pocketbook and house key. Officer Malone was in the living room, his hand on the scanner. "This what you were listening to?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, "but I just shut that thing off. I really need to see my husband now."
She gingerly got into the back seat of the patrol car, thinking how she'd have to wash her blouse and pants after all this. Who knew what type of sleazy people sat in that seat just before her. Probably girls like at that Centerfolds who did seat dances — or were they lap dances? She couldn't remember and didn't care. And hospitals were breeding grounds for diseases and infections and all kinds of dirty-sounding things. She held her arms tightly against her, her hands holding her pocketbook on her lap. She ducked her head so no one would see her riding in the back seat like a common criminal. One of the officers should have been polite and sat in the back and let her sit up front.
When they pulled up to the Emergency Department, Carole hastily walked past all the drunks and gunshot victims carelessly bleeding onto the floor, and into a room where her Robert lay, a sheet over most of his body, his face and feet soot covered. She smiled to see him sleeping so peacefully. And look, there weren't any of those catheter lines or IVs running from his body. Not even one of those prongs in his nose for oxygen. He must be all right then, she mused. All that worry for nothing.
"Robert? I'm here. Look at you! They just need to clean you up. I'll go get a nice clean damp cloth." When their pastor touched her shoulder with a sad look on his face and shook his head, she collapsed to the floor, hearing other voices talking about something she should remember, something not nice. She hoped she fell gracefully.
Two days later, after the well-orchestrated wake and funeral for her darling Robert, Carole sat on her living room sofa during the repast, looking at all people who came to her house. The dining room table practically groaned under all the sandwiches and salads and array of desserts that everyone brought. Her good friend, Theresa, was making nice with some of the male police officers, downing her second glass of wine. Carole sat up straighter, sipping at her chamomile tea. After all, it wouldn't do to be like Theresa, who was fast becoming a drunken woman. Her musing turned to the amount of liquor being swilled by the visitors and she calculated the cost, wondering if perhaps she should have only served non-alcoholic drinks. Theresa advised against that, but what did she know, the lush.
Carole put down her tea cup and sighed. Well, what's done is done, she told herself, remembering to use the tissue clutched in her hand to delicately wipe at her eyes. Besides, how many residents in this town could say that their beloved's funeral was well-attended by mayors and firefighters and police. Why, even two senators stood near the make-shift bar.
Her ears perked up when she heard one of Robert's buddies mention his name.
"Robert was true to his word," the man said. "He died doing what he loved."
Another one held up his plastic cup of beer in toast. "Here, here!" The small group around the man all did the same. She felt her heart warm towards them, despite their obvious inebriated states.
Late that afternoon, as she sat at the desk in the living room with papers spread around the top of it, she mused how she'd soon have Robert's life insurance and pension to cover all the funeral expenses — especially the liquor bill — with enough left over to do a whole wardrobe and body make-over. She thanked her lucky stars it wasn't one of those long illnesses where all of their money would have gone to his medical care. That would have been such a waste. Her attorney even suggested that perhaps there could be a lawsuit against that horrible firetrap.
She picked up one of the newspaper clippings. It listed the names of the four people who died but they never mentioned that her husband was killed in the line of duty. Even the online social media sites ignored that fact. Tomorrow she'd set the record straight. And what a name for that dump he fearlessly entered — Centerfolds. Why, from what she saw of the few dancers who had the nerve to show up for the funeral, they were most definitely not centerfold material, not that she ever touched one of those men's magazines.
The doorbell rang and Carole sighed. She was tired now and really wanted to be left alone. And there was still paperwork to complete.
She cracked the door open and when she saw the ID of Detective David Osborn and Officer Malone behind him, she slid the chain off and welcomed them to come in, but made sure her face had an appropriate sad look on it. "Did either of you forget something?"
"No, we're here to see you," the detective answered.
Officer Malone cleared his throat. "Officer Bryziski was here that day as witness that your police scanner wasn't plugged in the morning of the fire, yet you knew all about it."
Carole's eyes widened and her face turned red. "I can't stand that thing! I unplugged it after it woke me up to that squawking sound and the call for mutual aid."
The detective nodded. "Yes, you could have done that. But there is also the matter of one, let me see," he looked down at his notepad, "friend of yours named Theresa Materli, who claims that that at seven that morning you knew that the back door of Centerfolds was open and that the fire started in the trash can. An investigation didn't take place until later in the day."
Carole's heavy makeup couldn't hide the red flush that rose on her face. "That drunk! She should belong to some sort of alcohol support group. How could she get anything straight in her state of mind?"
The detective looked over at the boots in the not-for-cats litter box and picked them up. They were very clean. "These yours?"
Frowning, Carole said, "Yes."
"You have small feet. Size four-and-a-half narrow?"
This startled her. "How — "
"We found the same boot print behind the club where the fire started. Officer Malone here noticed the boots the morning your husband died. He said they seemed very small. And you have no children who would wear them…" His voice trailed off in insinuation.
"This is absurd! I'm a firefighter's widow!"
"Carole Anderson, you're under arrest," Officer Malone said, as he slipped handcuffs on her wrists, one cuff clinking into her gold watch, and began reading her rights.
Carole didn't fuss, didn't scream (for screaming was for low-lifes), and as they walked her outside, she was glad she hadn't taken off her high heels. "My attorney," she announced loudly enough for the gathering crowd on the sidewalk, "is the best in the state! He'll get me out of this! My husband died trying to save those wretched girls and their sleazy patrons!"
As Officer Malone settled her into the back seat of the patrol car, Detective Osborn leaned in and said, "No, Mrs. Anderson, your husband wasn't fighting the fire. He wasn't even on fire call that night. Robert Anderson was one of the patrons. A steady customer, according to the manager." He closed the door and slid into the front passenger seat.
Carole's heart beat fast and her hands clenched. It came to her like a kick to the head. She remembered what she heard in the hospital just before she passed out. Her Robert hadn't been fighting the fire. And when they toasted to his name at the repast — it was a joke! Doing what he loved! All reasoning faded and now she didn't worry about her looks or the condition of the back seat of the police car or the people watching her being taken away. She screamed over and over, "Bastard!"
Later, when she had all the time in the world to think (and think she finally did), she was glad that at least Centerfolds ceased to exist in her hometown. Perhaps someday the mayor and townspeople would thank her, the former Miss Junior Mintz, for that.
Anne Skalitza is a freelance writer with many short stories and essays published in magazines, anthologies, and online. Ms. Skalitza‘s short story "Marble House" was published on omdb! in August, 2011. Her eBook, Looney Dunes, is a light-hearted mystery, perfect for a fun read. For more about Anne and her take on life, visit www.anneskal.wordpress.com.
Copyright © 2014 Anne Skalitza. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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