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Authors: Melissa Falcon Field

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BOOK: What Burns Away
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The timing of our move had made it hard for me to find work in the middle of the term, so I had chosen to stay home to attempt to be the kind of mom I most admired—the kind of mom I had always wanted for myself—one who found satisfaction in beautifying her home, one who had patience for the tears and the tantrums, one who loved cooking for her children.

When I left my career, I had imagined myself decorating Jonah's room as if it were a Pinterest board, cutting out owls for his walls to mount onto a hand-painted mural, and making all his food from scratch. But no matter how good I was at some of those things, mostly I failed. I was terrible at crafts and had no patience for baking, and often I became derailed because those kinds of things were not second nature to me, and because I felt myself becoming more and more disconnected from that decade of my life pioneering ozone research and identifying the chemical compounds contributing to environmental problems.

The things I had once been so successful at were orbiting out of my reach, and my knowledge of them was quickly becoming too obsolete for even the most lackluster professorship. So even though Jonah was an early talker and a good boy most of the time—although some days as inconsolable as me—I found myself longing for the easy gratification that comes from work. Simply, I pined for it more than I ever dreamed I would, and I felt ashamed about missing it.

I paused to admire the tiny ocean my husband had so sweetly brought home to me the night before. And as I stretched my feet out of bed, I discovered the smaller of the two angelfish stuck to the filter.

Unacclimated
, I thought, exactly how I felt.

I studied the fish's eyes fogged dead white.

And as I rose, I wondered what else would be sacrificed for my husband's dreams of academic distinction that I'd been asked to chase.

• • •

After I learned that Dean had purchased 101 Quayside—the place that housed the poltergeists of my youth—my preoccupation with Dean grew like a cancer, a fixation Miles noted in the expression on my face.

“Claire, what is going on with you?” he asked, fiddling with his glasses. “I'm worried. You're distracted, like you're somewhere else all the time. You don't laugh. You're not playful like you used to be. I know you miss our life in Mystic. I miss it too. But this is a good place for us, babe.”

Getting up from the table where we sat, I silently looped a scarf around my neck and tugged a wool beanie over my head. I moved into the living room and recalled the promises Miles had made when he took the job here, assuring me that it would mean more time spent with Jonah and more time to think about how we might grow our tiny family. I tossed another log on the fire, knowing that despite the best intentions, those promises were ones he could never keep.

With my wine in hand, I set my computer on the end table and dropped into the wingback chair by the hearth. I scooted closer to the blaze and pictured a different life: Dean living at the Quayside, drinking coffee in the third-floor bedroom with his beautiful wife, her long legs and perfect teeth, the sun in her eyes and backlighting her hair in the only photo I've seen of her on Facebook, in which she sits on the hood of a Jeep with her arm around Dean.

Dear Dean—

I haven't talked to my mother in years, so I never heard about your acquisition of the property. And, wow, Quayside is quite the place.

That said, I've always felt haunted there.

You may already know this, but as my mother explained it to Kara and me, a long time back, the house was originally built for a sea captain, Thomas Moses. According to the historical society, Captain Moses served on the USS
Constellation
, where in 1803 he became master of the brig. Then, in 1810 or thereabout, he bought that block of land along the beach and built the Quayside house for his wife and seven children. But he lived there only one year after the construction was finished because he died at sea during the War of 1812. There used to be a pretty creepy portrait of the old captain above the mantel, until Kara and I moved in with Mom. But it terrified my sister so much that she started to pee in the bed, so my mother sold it.

And, no, I really can't picture you there in that house or across the way at the White Sands Country Club, smoking your menthol cigarettes, having a PBR, and chasing it back with a shot of Jäger. I bet you turn some heads. But then again, you always did, and from your photos here, I see nothing in that department has changed.

It is snowing in the Midwest tonight. It never stops. And I do miss home, not the house you are in as much as the old farmhouse that Miles and I restored in Mystic, and always, my whole life, I've ached to go back and find my dad at his little place on Willard Street, where I first saw you shoveling snow.

Isn't it strange how we grew up in those tiny ranch houses, exactly the same, like they were dropped from a cake tin? Remember how you could hear the foghorns from the back deck? I miss the fog rising off the Sound when the water is warmer than the air. I think the beach is my favorite this time of year. I'm so lonely for it. In fact, I've never been so lonely in all my life. It doesn't help that my husband is distracted with his new job. I'm actually jealous of the hospital. It's pathetic. I dream about breaking into it to kidnap him. Or the place vanishing all together. I have dark ideas about it. Anyway, the whole transition here is more than we had counted on. So I'm alone mostly, raising my boy and hoping to be scooped up from 3534 Topping Road by some crazy spaceship that'll take us away from this perpetual storm.

Much love,

Claire

The firewood in front of me popped and hissed. I sipped my wine and watched the embers warm to the color of a summer sunset, and then I returned my gaze to the screen, toggling through newly uploaded pictures of Dean.

In the shots he looked the part of an L. L. Bean model, rugged and strong. Unshaven, in his survival gear, he hiked up the backside of Connecticut's highest peak, Bear Mountain, wielding an ice pick. Standing beside a sign that read “Rica Junction, Appalachian Trail,” he posed with his hands on his hips in the falling snow. With no stretch of my imagination, he looked better than ever, statuesque even, and in his gaze was all that old mystery about him.

I studied the pictures, zooming in to make out another face I recognized: Jimmy Pistritto, who ran around with Dean during our time together, until he was arrested for theft and sent to Enfield Correctional Institution just before I left town for college. In the snapshot Jimmy's eyes had the same dark leer I remembered, something sinister behind them as he furrowed his brow at the camera and held up a beer.

The rest of the shots were postcard images taken under a blue twilight, in which the Berkshire Taconic landscape was dusted with new snow. And while I was scrolling through scenes of mountains and valleys, the severity of that topography not found in the level terrain of the Midwest, Dean popped up on chat.

Dean:
You there?

Claire:
I am!

Dean:
Just read your email. Captain Moses, huh? Fantastic, also, that you remember my love for shitty beer. PBR, yes please! I'm actually throwing back a tall one right now. Is it bad to admit that I can't stop thinking about you?

I hesitated, unsure how to respond, wondering how much to encourage what he initiated, sensing the momentum of it, understanding then that I could let myself grow dangerous with him again.

Dean:
Well, I can't stop thinking about you. About us.

Claire:
We had fun.

Dean:
You were so beautiful. And smart. But we were so young. I wish I met you later, when I was more grounded. When we knew ourselves better. When I knew what I wanted. Maybe we would have had a shot.

Claire:
Are you grounded now?

Dean:
Maybe not completely, but I've sure as hell learned a lot.

Claire:
Me too.

Dean:
Let's have dinner sometime.

Claire:
I'm eating dinner now. By the fire.

Dean:
What are you wearing? ;)

Claire:
Sweater, hat, scarf, and jammies. In my defense, I'm freezing to death. It's colder here than anywhere I've ever been in my life.

Dean:
You need a bigger fire and some company. You know, I can see it—you there in the window, all by yourself with your dinner plate, wearing flannel pajama pants. The girl I remember. It makes me sad. I want to snatch you up and take you out for dinner on a proper date, with PBR tall boys for me, and for you, a few gallons of red wine.

Claire:
I need all of that.

Dean:
I'll head right over.

I giggled like a teenage girl, flattered, eager to pursue the fantasy when Miles stepped in front of me, eating a giant cookie covered in red and green sprinkles.

“What's funny?” my husband asked, licking crumbs from his lips and coming to stand beside me.

My face blushed as if my flirtation was apparent. “Just emailing friends.”

My computer sounded as another message from Dean popped up on my screen.

Miles smiled, sat on the arm of my chair, and asked optimistically, “Friends here?”

“Home,” I said. “I don't have any friends here.” I pulled my computer close to my body, shielding the screen.

He nodded and took another bite of his dessert.

“I made those cookies for Jonah,” I told him.

“Can't I have one?”

I shrugged and patted Miles's belly.

“For warmth,” he said, sucking it in. “I'll run again when the snow melts. Oh, and, honey, can I ask you one more thing?”

“Yes,” I said, half listening, glancing down at my computer, eager to get back to Dean.

“Did you tell the neighbor across the street that we were only here until the end of the year?”

“I guess I did.” I paused. “Why?”

“Well, first of all, because it's not at all true, and second, because her husband works in the Department of Medicine.”

“So?”

“So we have a two-year obligation, Claire. That's the absolute minimum before we can even begin to discuss other options. You know that. Anyway, her husband came up to me in the lab and asked if I was already looking at other jobs. My reputation is important, babe, especially if we should ever want to make a change, which right now I don't. I can see this place being really great for us. Madison is a beautiful city. And, my colleagues need to know I am committed to the department and the research at hand.”

I sipped from my wineglass. “Sorry,” I said.

“And by the way,” Miles told me through his final mouthful of cookie crumbs, “you left the oven on. I turned it off. I smelled something burning. Same thing happened yesterday after you went to bed. Could you be more careful? Maybe you're distracted. But just, please, honey, take more care.”

“Yup,” I said, nodding. Wanting him to leave me alone. “I'll be more careful.”

He leaned in to kiss my forehead and stood. “I'm going to work on my grant a while. Don't wait up on me.”

“Okay. Good night.”

Miles shuffled off in his slippers, and as he went, I read the last bit of Dean's correspondence, queued in our thread.

Claire, don't you wonder what it would be like with us now? As grown-ups? Hopefully, this isn't saying too much. But I wonder. In fact, I've wondered about that for a long time.

Since he was no longer on chat after Miles left the room, I sent Dean a brief email before logging off and heading up to bed, hesitating momentarily before delivering my own restrained confession.

Dean—

You
can't
say too much after all we shared. After all you did for me. And thank you for the compliments. I'll admit, I've wondered too. And I've imagined it some. In any case, I hope you're happy and well.

Love,

Claire

Closing my laptop with my feet stretched out toward the hearth, I thought then about fire and its scientific definition—“a high-temperature, self-sustaining chemical reaction, resulting in heat and often casting flames”—quite certain that Dean and I still had that old fire between us, in every sense of the term.

CHAPTER FOUR
Fire

Mr. Barnet, my ninth-grade science teacher, wore the same green-and-black flannel shirt every day of my freshman year, cuffing his sleeves to reveal a periodic table tattoo on his forearm. I'll never forget his lessons in fire, as they influenced most who I would become that year—and who I would become again so much later in my life.

Mr. Barnet began the first unit on combustion by announcing: “Fire is one thing in nature that is not matter.”

I can still hear the force of his chalk striking the blackboard as he wrote in block letters:

Fire = Combustion.

Fire = The visible, tangible side effect of matter
changing form
.

He turned to face the class, rubbing his goatee.

Someone let out a belch.

Norwell Jackson, the captain of the basketball team, was tipping back in his chair, playing with a Rubik's Cube. Mr. Barnet pegged Norwell in the shoulder with his eraser, a warning.

Then, he turned to me. I was snapping my gum when he said it, the words I still hear every time I see flames: “Fire is a weapon with unlimited power.”

Onto the overhead projector, Mr. Barnet placed an artist's sketch originally printed in an old
Harper's Weekly
, rendering the Great Chicago Fire that we were reading about in history class, the sky dark with smoke, masses of people running from towering flames.

“Here's an example of a fire that burned for two days, from October eighth through October tenth, 1871, after either Catherine and Patrick O'Leary's cow kicked over a kerosene lantern or, more likely in my scientific opinion, fragments from Biela's comet ignited a spark that started a barn fire carried on southwestern winds, reducing the city to ash.”

He placed another sketch of an incinerated city onto the overhead. Only the skeletons of the brick buildings remained after the inferno had been extinguished.

“Fire is combustion,” Mr. Barnet told us. He then lit a piece of paper with a Bunsen burner and tossed it the air. It burned to dust before ever touching the floor. “Combustion is the chemical process that makes things burn.”

In the back row, Norwell Jackson cleared his throat and flicked his Zippo lighter, while Mr. Barnet continued his lecture without skipping a beat. “Fire isn't matter at all. That flame is an oxidation process, not unlike rusting or digestion, but this chemical process differs from those because it releases heat
and
light. It makes fire intense, it makes the big ones unforgettable, and it makes all of it sexy.”

I had never heard a teacher use the word “sexy” before. The rest of the class seemed unimpressed, but I was rapt.

His next slide featured the space shuttle's engines, fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. He explained how the reaction between the two chemicals—in what appeared to be a very fiery explosion beneath the orbiter—created a propellant that launched the spacecraft into flight.

With a yardstick, Mr. Barnet slapped the screen where the combustion burned red.

“This element, fire, can destroy an entire house in less than an hour, and a vehicle, if ignited from the inside out, in half that time. Propelling a rocket into space takes only T minus 26.6 seconds.”

• • •

That January 1986, the month of my fourteenth birthday and the start of my second semester of ninth grade, had been dubbed “the year of astrophysical encounters” by NASA, which had arranged for the space shuttle to launch in time to ride the tail of Halley's comet. Their hope was to study the comet with all the technology gathered in the seventy-five years since its prior visit, while hosting a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, from a New Hampshire town two hours north of our own.

But all that enchantment vanished as the
Challenger
split in two that morning of January 28, a Tuesday, after seventy-three seconds in the air. The explosion seemed not just the symbol of a dream turned to ash, but also became the image I would forever associate with the collapse of my parents' marriage.

Arriving late at school that day, I jumped out of Dean's truck—racing past the office, dodging the tardy sign-in sheet—and sprinted down the hall to our high school auditorium with my model of the comet in hand. I prayed to Mary, Joseph, and all the saints we learned about in catechism, that I had not missed the countdown and liftoff with our New England heroine on board.

I made it in time and scooted to the edge of my seat as the missile ascended under the combustion of the engines that Mr. Barnet had explained to us. The spacecraft arced through the air, a white tail like the comet's trailing behind it. But shortly after the launch, unexplained dark smoke billowed out beneath the shuttle as the rocket split in two. Our teachers looked at each other, and the broadcasters went silent.

In an instant, the illusion dissolved, and I knew that burning up with the shuttle and our dreams were all the letters we had written to the crew, including Judith Resnik, the second female astronaut in space, and Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who had visited our classroom and to whom we spent much of our first semester drafting and typing up letters.

January 5, 1986

Claire Spruce

290 Willard Street

East Lyme, CT 06333

NASA c/o Christa McAuliffe

Teacher in Space Project

Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77297

Dear Mrs. McAuliffe,

In one week you will take off from Kennedy Space Center at 11:38 a.m. and as soon as you go, you will become a hero. In fact, you already are a hero to me. Even though I am only fourteen, I think about my future a lot. I run track and work on yearbook so that I can be the first person in my family to go to college. I was a Girl Scout in elementary and middle school and learned the basics of camping and survival. I can even make a fire with a flint and two sticks. I have patches on my badge to prove it, but I was never good at selling the cookies.

This year my science class will be participating in the Teacher in Space Project and I am very excited to take classes broadcasted from the shuttle. Do you think there is a chance of seeing Halley's comet as it rotates the Earth? We have a telescope at our school, but even with a study hall pass no one is ever allowed to use it. I would love to see pictures of it from where you are.

I was hoping you might send me your picture and autograph so that I can include them in my science project called, “The Ultimate Field Trip.” I am making a model of Halley's comet to go with it. A couple more questions: (A) Do you have any kids? (I think it would be so cool if my mom went up in space to see the comet!) (B) Did you always know you wanted to go into space? (I have known since I was born that I want to study the atmosphere.)

Good Luck!

Claire Spruce

Grade 9

Lyme High School

Watching the shuttle falling from the sky, I imagined my letter falling too, part of the ominous confetti sprinkled over the Atlantic, and sinking into the deep. And in that audience where I sat with my classmates after the explosion, we waited quietly, more quiet than we'd ever been in school, and perhaps in our whole lives.

In the auditorium we scanned the walls decorated with red, white, and blue streamers, but the horns we had blown at liftoff went unsounded in our laps. From my pocket I pulled the letter Christa McAuliffe had returned to me and clasped it to my chest, my rib cage heaving, as I unfolded the creased paper and read it again, certain already that she was dead.

NASA

Teacher in Space Project

Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77297

Claire Spruce

290 Willard Street

East Lyme, CT 06333

January 19, 1986

Dear Claire:

I am delighted that you took the time to write. When I was fourteen, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so you are ahead of me there, but I was always very active in Girl Scouts, just as you mentioned you were in elementary school. And, like you, I have been eagerly awaiting Halley's visit, as it will be the only chance in my lifetime to view the comet orbiting Earth. On our mission we will carry out the first flight of the shuttle-pointed tool for astronomy (SPARTAN-203). It is a Halley's comet experiment-deployable device that will allow us to observe and photograph the comet. It will be incorporated in several of the lessons from space that I will be teaching in partnership with your school as part of the Teacher in Space Project and the Shuttle Student Involvement Program (SSIP).

As you might imagine, I am excited about going into space on the Shuttle Challenger and I hope that more young women like you are going to be interested in NASA career opportunities later on in life.

To answer your question, I have two children, a boy and a girl. I miss them dearly, as my training at the Johnson Space Center here in Houston keeps me far from home. But, that said, it has been very exciting for me to take advantage of this opportunity and I look forward to my mission in late January.

Enclosed is the photograph you requested, and thanks again for writing. I will be carrying the letters from your class with me as a token for good luck on our mission.

Sincerely,

S. Christa McAuliffe

The sacrifice of the
Challenger
crew—and for me, the loss of Christa McAuliffe, especially—revealed the profound truth, that we were all changed by watching the orbiter breaking apart and those seven crew members dying in front of us while their spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. We were no longer the children we had been, and at fourteen years old, we turned inside ourselves.

The girls sitting in the folding chairs in front of me no longer held hands and grinned at each other in excited anticipation. Each person in that room dived solo into grief. No one ate their pizza slices, and our ice cream melted in the plastic bowls in the back of the auditorium as a teary-eyed Mr. Barnet rolled the AV equipment away.

Ushered into our adulthood, we awaited Principal Jensen's voice over the loudspeakers to announce what was already clear—Christa McAuliffe, the thirty-seven-year-old mother of two, who bore a likeness to our own mothers, would not be teaching three classes from outer space. Something had gone terribly wrong.

We were let out of school early, and I waited for my mom to pick me up, trying to understand how I could ever let go of that dream, the moment I had waited for all year. I asked myself if there were any guarantees, any promises that our parents or NASA or even President Reagan could keep. And I clearly remember deciding then that if he asked, I would give myself to Dean.

• • •

I don't remember her doing this any other time, but that afternoon of the
Challenger
disaster, my mother left her job as an emergency room nurse at Hartford Hospital early to pick up Kara and me from our schools. Out front of my high school, Kara waved apathetically from the front window of Mom's station wagon, signaling their arrival.

Both my sister's and my mother's eyes were red from crying, yet their duplicate beauty was still intact. Kara's and Mom's full lips quivered; their mouths were downturned. I got in back and we drove in silence. In the rearview mirror, I watched my mother blink away the tears that streaked her eye makeup and soaked her face. Behind me, grocery bags rustled as we made the sharp turns leading up to our driveway.

Parked in front of our house were my Uncle G's plumbing van and my dad's friend Rex's battered Jeep with its notorious bumper sticker:
Draft
Beer, Not Boys
.

Inside, the guys played cards—their weekly Tuesday afternoon poker match, something my father had organized with his friends who were also out of work, either by choice like my uncle or because they were walking the picket line like Dad and Rex. Sometimes other neighborhood guys joined them, but most often it was just Dad, Rex, and Uncle G who sat around the table, all of them going through various strings of jobs, unemployed on and off for years. The game gave their calendars some consistency and was one they had played since high school, never missing a week, except for a couple of years after their numbers were called for the Vietnam draft.

My father was the only one who served in that war. Uncle G, my mother's brother—or, as my dad called him, “the Lucky Fuckin' Mick”—had failed his physical examination due to the Ménière's disease he blamed every time he got drunk and fell down. “And Rex dodged the whole mess,” Dad explained to us once, “to marry Marian, his first wife, the prettiest of the three, moving with her up to godforsaken Halifax, Canada, to make candles and sell salt cod.” But following my father's and Rex's return after those nearly two years away, the three amigos all picked up where they left off and the games resumed at our house.

That January afternoon, in lieu of the poker chips they could not find, the men used my mother's sea glass as their markers. Mom stored her prized collection in giant mason jars sorted by colors—one filled with just the rare blues, another with greens, a jar for whites, one for the browns, and then the most treasured, filled with pinks and broken pieces of antique pottery.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mom asked my father when she stepped in from the cold and up to the table with bags full of groceries. Her mouth was pinched.

My father scratched his beard with his cards. “What the fuck does it look like we're doing?”

Rex eyed my mother, thumbing a gold crucifix nestled in the thicket of chest hair that grew up from his V-neck sweater and blowing cigarette smoke from his nose like a dragon.

Next to him, Uncle G wore a plumber's shirt monogrammed with “Hot Shit” where his name tag should read “Gerald.” He had a thick mustache like Magnum P.I. and a Marlboro hanging from his lip.

“Don't get your panties in a tangle,” he told my mother, his sister. “We couldn't find where you hid the poker chips so we compromised.” He smiled then and flicked his ashes into an empty beer can.

BOOK: What Burns Away
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