Cold Things Never Catch Fire

Felix and Gretchen had their last meal together on January 29th, 1977. It wasn’t any particularly special day. Felix went to work shoveling snow and clearing roofs for people in the neighborhood while he was laid off from the chemical plant. Gretchen stayed home and continued to sew the shirt quilt she had started when their last kid left home. Nothing out of the ordinary. At least where anyone would be able to see.

The work day consisted of five jobs; a nominal amount for as deep as they were into the season. Two jobs were on the same street they lived on, and the others were either on the adjacent street to the right or else around the corner by the drug store. Felix walked from job to job, carrying his shovel over his shoulder. He enjoyed an honest day’s work, even if the cold air tore up his lungs.

The McFadden place had an oversized driveway that wrapped all the way from one side of the property to the other in a U-shape, and it took Felix most of the morning to clear. When he finished it was around ten to noon, so he decided to head home to get a cup of cocoa and maybe a sandwich to keep his energy up. On the walk back he spotted deer tracks leading west on the park walkway between the McFadden’s and the house next to them.

Gretchen was in the kitchen when he walked through the back door and kicked his boots off. They had a small mud room that was just enough to stand in while you knocked your boots off on the doorstep, then you could hold onto the door frame while you stepped out of them and placed them off to the side without getting your socks wet. Before he even entered the kitchen Felix smelled grilled cheese and tomato soup. His mouth watered as he took his seat with his back to the refrigerator.

The kitchen was small but had the air of once being nicely decorated. Once being the keyword, since years of smoke had layered on top of the wallpaper and stained everything a sickly yellow-brown. Gretchen smoked upwards of three packs a day while Felix smoked two himself, though a lot of his was outside while he was working. Neither of them really cared enough to update the room.

A quick glance into the living room from his chair showed Felix that the wood pile was low, and since lunch was still a few minutes off he decided to step out to the woodshed and bring some in. He put his boots on and went out, only to find the shed empty and the last pallet of wood covered with a blanket of fresh powder. He sighed and grabbed some logs a few layers down, though they were frozen as well as the top layer.

Inside he stacked the logs by the fireplace instead of putting them in, and when he rejoined the kitchen Gretchen brought over a sandwich and cup of steaming soup.

“Why didn’t you put those in?” she asked. “It’s going to dip a few degrees here soon.”
“The logs are frozen,” said Felix. “If I add them now they won’t burn, but the ice that melts will put out the coal bed.” He took a bite of his sandwich and swallowed. “The wet logs would make for more smoke, too.”
“Ah.”

Neither of them spoke for the next fifteen minutes. Felix ate his hot meal and mentally prepped for the second half of his work day. Gretchen immediately put what was left over from cooking into Tupperware and left it on the counter to cool while she began washing the dishes. The fire popped loudly a few times and spat out some hots as it burned down to the last of its fuel.

Felix drained the last of his soup and set the cup down with finality. “Are you not going to eat?”
“I’m not hungry,” said Gretchen.
“You haven’t been eating much.” Felix stood up and grabbed his dishes, but the sound of his chair had Gretchen spinning around and taking them out of his hands before he could take a step. “You feeling okay?”
“I’m fine dear.”

Her air of indifference, coupled with a hint of resentment and something that tasted of regret, was pervasive in the small space. She took the dishes and slipped them into the soapy water almost mechanically like she was being controlled by little more than muscle memory. Felix watched his wife wash each dish separately and then rinse, sort and stack them. Her shoulders rose and fell in perfectly spaced increments. The monotony of it was unsettling.

“Alright, I have to go finish up for today. I should be a few more hours.” He stepped carefully over to the door and into his boots once more. “Are you sure you’re alright? Can I grab you something from the store on my way back?”
“I don’t need anything. Thank you.”

Her words cut across harsh and dismissing, so he pushed his arms through his jacket sleeves and headed back out into the cold.

When their oldest child left, Gretchen had a hard time coping with it. When Stephen left to go west for college she kept his room exactly as it was for over seven years. When he graduated and no longer came home on breaks, Felix managed to talk her into redoing his room as a guest bedroom. It still took her another three years to actually get it done. Once she did, it was like part of her had left and she wasn’t the same person anymore.

Felix passed the McFadden’s place and rounded the block to the right, passing a couple more houses before he found his next target. A stark brick home with a large overhang held up by two white, cylindrical columns dominating the front entrance belonged to Dr. Kellinger and his wife, Melinda. The two car garage meant an extra-wide driveway and double the rate for snow removal.

Once Felix began shoveling he slipped back into his groove, and with a bit of a jolt he realized how monotonous and robotic his movements were, just as his wife’s. But there was something different about hers. Hers felt like they were no longer part of daily life, but something laborious and unfavorable. Like she held a distaste toward him for feeling as if she had to clean up after him when he was perfectly capable of doing it himself.

It wasn’t always like that. When they were first together Gretchen reveled in married life. She would say how her mother, rest her soul, would be so proud to see her daughter fulfilling her wishes of having grandchildren. How their family resembled her own when she was young and the way she used her mother’s old recipes to make the meals they ate each day. Even so, Felix noticed she took long periods of solitude to herself semi-frequently. He wondered sometimes if he was actually married to a real person and not just the continuation of someone that had passed. Like maybe she was living the life she thought she was supposed to instead of the one she wanted, and she carried the weight of it.

Half way through the Kellinger property it started to snow a little. Big, thick flakes fell slowly enough that they were pushed around by the light wind, resembling the wild pattern a piece of paper would take if dropped off a roof. He examined one that fell on the wrist edge of his glove and had a fleeting memory of cutting paper snowflakes to decorate their picture window with a handful of years back. After their youngest, Danielle, left, holidays were no longer a thing in their household. A lack of festivity and the loss of sixty-six percent of her daily company was probably a major culprit in her newfound suburban incarnation of hysteria siberiana.

By the time the sidewalk and porch were finished the driveway he’d just cleared had another laminate-thin layer of snow on it. Dr. Kellinger just chuckled, a lowball of Brandy in his left hand, and paid Felix his money. The sky darkened by the minute and snow began to fall more vigorously, so Felix decided to call it a day and head back home. Seven and a half hours wasn’t too bad of a work day.

He stopped into the drug store on his way around the block and grabbed a few things. Headache medicine, caramel hard candies for Gretchen and a six-pack of Old Style for himself. The cashier wasn’t especially talkative, so Felix spent the time it took to bag the items trying to look at the products behind the counter through the cashier’s overly-thick lenses. It only took about fifteen seconds for him to get dizzy and end up staring down at the counter until he was ready to go.

Back at the house, he stored his shovel in the woodshed and made a mental note to pick up another cord or two from his Uncle’s place out by the county line. He completed his usual routine of kicking his boots off in the mud room and then washing his hands in the kitchen sink. The gloves kept calluses from forming but the pads of his hands were still red and worn, and the hot water gave him a pins-and-needles sensation.

Usually, Gretchen was either in the kitchen or could be heard moving around the living room, but he noticed the house seemed unusually still. He pulled a beer out of the six pack rings and put the rest in the fridge. A quick glance in the living room produced no busy-bodied Gretchen. He cracked his beer and took a drink while he made a U-shape turn through the living room and around to the hallway that led to the bedrooms. He checked each room one by one, stopping by theirs, knocking on the closed bathroom door then stepping in, and then by checking Stephen’s. It wasn’t until he checked Danielle’s room that he found his wife lying on their daughter’s bed, unmoving.

He hurried inside and sat his beer down on the side table, taking note of the room. Nothing was out of place. Gretchen would enter the children’s rooms every week to dust and refresh the bed linens, even though no one ever slept on them. Her body was curled in a semi-fetal position and as soon as Felix put a knee onto the bed to lean over and find her face, he could tell by the way the weight of her body shifted that she was lifeless. He stepped around to the other side of the bed and found two empty prescription bottles between her arms and chest.

The first thing to do was call 911, so he rushed into the living room and dialed. “My wife is unresponsive,” he said. “I just got home from work, I’m not sure how long she’s been this way. Less than three hours.” The operator was a woman and her voice was calm and rhythmic. She told him that a unit was dispatched and would be there within a few minutes. He thanked her half-heartedly and dropped the phone haphazardly onto the receiver.

There was a stagnation that had taken over their daughter’s room. It seemed odd to him since that hadn’t happened since they left. She was in those rooms every week, without fail, making sure they were fresh and felt lived in, in case one of them wanted to come stay for a few days and visit. Stephen did once, shortly before he got married. He mentioned to his mother that he was happy she kept his space for him, and that was just more fuel for her fire.

But now, her body lay stiff and unyielding in the center of teenage memories. The walls were covered in pictures of Danielle and her friends and cutouts from magazines. Every photograph told a story. Felix fell to his knees next to the bed and reached out to touch his wife’s forearm. She was already cold and her eyelids had a blueish tint. Apparently she hadn’t been taking one of her medications for some time, but she did a good job of not showing it. As he tucked his head into his arms, he heard the front door open and the paramedics made their way into the house.

One of them helped to pick him up by his shoulders and led him from the bedroom to the living room. He sat on the couch and stared blankly at the floor while they processed the scene and removed Gretchen’s body. Some time later the stretcher rolled through the living room with a shapeless white form on top of it. He caught it out of the corner of his eye but didn’t have the heart to look up as she passed him.

When he finally opened his eyes and looked up he noticed the police had arrived and were standing in the kitchen. Two squad cars were parked out front by the ambulance, and as soon as the paramedics left the scene one of the officers made his way into the living room.

“I’m sorry to hear about your loss Mr. Saban, I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now.”
Felix didn’t respond.
“I’m going to need just a short statement from you on what happened today. I know it’s rough right now and this is the last thing you want to do, but it’s important that we get all of the information we can as soon as possible.”

The other officers moved from the kitchen to the bedroom where Gretchen’s spirit may or may not have been lingering. He didn’t feel any presence there when he was next to her, so he couldn’t imagine that some part of the woman he loved was still there. He knew what she felt like, and he was more aware than ever of the place she held inside of him. The lump in his throat wouldn’t subside and a pinching feeling grew in his fingertips like he longed to touch something that no longer existed.

“Okay,” Felix finally said, “let’s get this over with.”