“The Night the Billado Block Burned Down” by Elizabeth Gauffreau

Then the Billado Block burned down, and I had nowhere to live. “Well, shit,” I said to the guy standing next to me watching it burn, “what am I supposed to do now?” Rents were hard to come by in the village, and I’d been damned lucky to get that rathole of a studio apartment in the Billado Block with the last of my money after I cleaned out our bank account.

My escape from Florida had been ill-conceived, although not as ill-conceived as my escape to Florida had been. I’d let Jason talk me into moving down there with him out of simple boredom—not the least of which was being bored with him. If he ever had an original thought in his head, it was long gone by the time I met him. He made all kinds of ridiculous promises, including living on the beach and swimming with the dolphins—but I figured ridiculous was better than boring.

“You want a beer?” the guy standing next to me said, reaching for the six-pack at his feet without taking his eyes off the fire. He looked reminiscent of a Paquette. Short, stocky, big nose.

“Thank you all the same,” I said to the Paquette, “but a beer is not going to help.”

For all I knew, he’d set the damned fire. The Billado Block had stood on Main Street for over a hundred years without catching on fire and burning down—there was no good reason it should catch on fire now to leave me with no place to live.

“Suit yourself,” said the Paquette.

Flames and smoke billowed and roared through the windows of the upper floors of the Billado Block, great streams of water directed by clusters of firefighters in the street below evaporating into useless clouds of steam. Lights from emergency vehicles parked every which way up and down the Main Street lit up the entire street in seizure-inducing flashes.

When the fire started, I didn’t hear the sirens. Sylvia was having a bad night and Amy had gone home sick, so there was no one on duty who could administer meds. Sylvia has night terrors, and I couldn’t calm her because she didn’t recognize me on account of her dementia. She was in such a state I could have used restraints, but I don’t like to use them on the frail ones. So I just sat by her bed while she screamed her fool head off at all the people who weren’t there trying to hurt her. And of course the others woke up to cry and moan and yell at Sylvia to shut up, for Christ’s sake. By the time I got off shift at eleven, I couldn’t wait to get to my rathole of a studio apartment in the Billado Block just to get some peace.

When I started walking home, I smelled smoke, but I didn’t think too much of it, since it was a chilly night, but as I approached Main Street, smoke hung visibly in the air, and there was a strange orange glow too low on the horizon to be anything but a building on fire. But I still didn’t think much of it. I figured it was Andy Weatherbee on North Main setting his garage on fire for the insurance. He’d done it twice before and some time had passed, so he was about due for another fire. But as soon as I turned the corner onto South Main, I could see that the emergency vehicles blocking the street were too close for the fire to be at Weatherbee’s. I started walking faster and faster, and by the time I reached Whiting’s Flower Shoppe, I was at a dead run. Then all I could do was stand and watch from across the street as the Billado Block proceeded to burn to the ground.

After refusing the Paquette’s offer of a beer, I asked him if he had been there the whole time.

“Sure have. I was sitting in the park with my buds here”—he nudged the six-pack with his foot—“when the smoke alarms started going off, and people came running out of the building. You wouldn’t believe how fast the whole place went up.”

“I’d believe it.” All of a sudden, I needed to sit down.

“Do you have anyone you can stay with? Can I call someone for you? Your folks? A friend?” The Paquette pulled a phone out of his back pocket, and I remembered which one he was. Andre.

I considered the phone in Andre’s hand as he moved a stubby finger into position to tap in a number. I could think of no one whose door I wanted to knock on in the middle of the night to beg a place to stay for an indeterminate length of time and be beholden to for the rest of my natural life. I shook my head.

“You sure?” Andre said. “No one? What about your folks?”

I shook my head again. “They moved.”

“Out of town?”

“Out of the country. They were so upset when Trump was elected, they packed up and moved back to Quebec.”

“Damn,” Andre said. “You’re in a world of shit, aren’t you?”

I turned away from Andre to face the fire. The firefighters had it mostly under control, and it was clear to see there would be no salvaging anything of my belongings.

“You could stay the rest of the night at my place,” Andre said. “Get some rest and figure out what you want to do.”

Staying the night at Andre Paquette’s place was probably as bad an idea as moving to Florida with Jason had been, but I was feeling wobbly and cold, so I went with him to his apartment on Orchard Street.

“This is me,” Andre said, turning into a driveway and pointing to a set of stairs on the side of the house. “Watch your step. The stairs are a little rickety.”

Andre’s attic apartment also seemed a little rickety, tucked up under the eaves with the furniture at odd angles wherever it would fit.

“How about that beer?” Andre said. “Can I fix you something to eat?”

“No to the beer, yes to something to eat. Where’s your bathroom?”

Andre pointed. “Through that doorway, on the left.”

After using the toilet, I had to duck my head to stand at the sink and wash my hands. When I returned to the little kitchenette, Andre was heating something in the microwave. “You like beef stew?” he said, turning his head to look at me.

I nodded and stood awkwardly behind him watching as the microwave timer counted down. When it beeped, Andre divided the stew between two empty margarine containers that apparently served him as bowls. “We can sit on the couch to eat. There’s only one chair for the table.” He handed me a fork and one of the margarine containers.

So I sat next to Andre Paquette on the couch and ate Dinty Moore beef stew. When I got to the bottom of the margarine container, I could sense him looking at me. “I could use some coffee,” he said. “You?”

I shrugged and made an I-suppose-so face.

When we were settled on the couch with our coffee, Andre said, “So, how did you come to be in Florida?”

Not that it was anything of a Paquette’s business, but I told him the story.

Believe it or not, my parents didn’t object to me quitting my job and moving thousands of miles away with a man I wasn’t married to and no prospects for a job or a place to live. So what the hell. We piled our belongings into Jason’s pickup and drove to Florida. And drove and drove and drove. When we got to Virginia, Jason started falling asleep at the wheel, so I took over the driving, but I couldn’t stay awake either. We’d already spent so much on gas we didn’t dare spend money on a motel. We just pulled over to the side of the highway and went to sleep.

The next morning, we woke up to full sun beating down. Jason started the truck, and we kept on driving. We ended up in Zephyr Hills, Florida. I should have known something was up when we passed by the public shuffleboard court. Why would a town need a public shuffleboard court? Who even plays shuffleboard? The only thing I can think of that would be more boring than playing shuffleboard would be watching other people playing shuffleboard. When I said as much to Jason, he actually disagreed with me, like I’d personally insulted him. Like I said, I should have known something was up.

Then Jason pulled into a trailer park, which wasn’t even a real trailer park with actual mobile homes. It was a camper park. Nothing but campers, hundreds of the damned things, all lined up in neat rows like cans of tuna fish. And every last one of ’em had an old person sitting in a lawn chair next to it. Old people smoking cigarettes, old people hooked to oxygen tanks, old people drinking beer, old people chewing tobacco, old people with dogs slumped at their feet panting in the heat, old people holding cats that looked like they’d rather be lit on fire than spend another minute sitting on that old person’s lap. And the two of us, driving five miles an hour between the rows of campers gawking at the old people like they’re freaks in a sideshow.

Jason stopped the truck next to a camper with streaks of rust down the side and a flower box with dead weeds sitting on the trailer hitch. Some kind of shredded awning hung from a rusted frame over the door. “I think it’s this one,” says Jason. He stopped the truck and killed the engine. Then he got out of the truck–but I stayed right where I was, while he fished in his pocket, pulled out a key, and unlocked the door. I was already starting to sweat from the AC being off.

“This is it!” Jason hollers, like he just struck gold. He waved for me to get out of the truck.

I opened the truck door and hollered back at him, “What are you doing? Come on, let’s go!”

Jason disappeared inside the camper. When he didn’t come out after a few minutes, I got out of the truck and went in after him. As soon as I set foot inside the camper, I got smacked in the face by a wave of humidity that smelled like a combination of mildew, urine, cigarette smoke, and hamburger grease.

“Jesus, Jason,” I said. “It smells like somebody died in here.”

“Well, he did, actually, but don’t worry. He died of natural causes.”

“Who died of natural causes? You mean to tell me somebody died in here?”

“Yeah, my Grandpa Al. Coulda been worse, if they hadn’t found him the next day.”

“Well, thank god for small miracles,” I said.

“Look, the place has everything we need, and everything’s paid up for the next four months. That gives us plenty of time to get jobs and spruce the place up.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “This is why you dragged me to Florida, for this? What about the beach? What about the dolphins?”

“We can drive to the beach any time we want,” says he.

I didn’t know whether I was madder at Jason for being a liar or an idiot. “Give me your keys,” I said, putting out my hand. “And twenty dollars.”

He took a step back and stumbled against the tiny counter next to the tiny sink. “What for?”

“I’m not going to steal your damned truck and drive back to Vermont on twenty dollars,” I said. “I’m going to drive to the goddamned Walmart across from the goddamned pig farm and buy some goddamn cleaning shit for this goddamned shithole you’ve brought me to.”

“I’ll come with you,” he says, taking out his keys. I almost laughed when he locked the door of the camper behind us.

The next day, I kicked him out so I could spend the day cleaning the camper. I didn’t know where he went for the day, and I didn’t care.

When he couldn’t muster up the ambition to look for a real job, Jason got a job tending bar at some redneck dive called Ralph’s. As for me, as long as there are withered old asses that need wiping, I’ll always have a job.

What with having to pay for food and laundromat and gas to run us to our jobs, it took almost a year for there to be enough money in our joint account to get me the hell out of there. When I cleaned out the account, I felt kind of bad for leaving Jason stranded, but he shouldn’t have lied to me. It was either take the money or steal his truck. I got a ride to the bus station in Tampa from one of our many nosy neighbors. I told her that my grandma was on her deathbed asking for me. Pretty low, I know, but I was desperate to get out of there.

So I was thirty-four hours on a Greyhound bus, riding and riding and riding, and every last passenger sitting next to me every time we made a stop was an old person. An old person talking about her gallbladder operation, an old person talking about her friend’s gallbladder operation, an old person talking about the presidential election, an old person talking about the 1968 presidential election, an old person with no teeth trying to eat a sandwich, an old person with no teeth trying to tell me a funny story and expecting me to laugh when I couldn’t understand a damn word he was saying.

There was nothing left to say at that point, so I stopped speaking. Andre looked thoughtful, but he didn’t say anything. He brought me a pillow and a blanket, and I went to sleep on the couch.

The morning after the night the Billado Block burned down dawned cold and bleak, like the sun was too tired and weak to even make it to the windows of Andre Paquette’s rickety attic apartment where I lay on the couch wondering what in hell I was going to do. After a breakfast of bitter coffee and stale doughnuts, I asked Andre to drive me to Saint Albans so I could get a bus back to Florida. To my surprise, he said, no, stay here with me. So I did. I almost have enough money saved up now to get a rathole of a studio apartment in the Perley Block.

Elizabeth Gauffreau holds a BA in English/Writing from Old Dominion University and an MA in English/Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She is currently the Director of Writing and Communication Programs at Granite State College in Concord, New Hampshire. She has published fiction and poetry in Foliate Oak, Serving House Journal, Soundings East, Hospital Drive, Blueline, Evening Street Review, and Adelaide Literary Review, among others, as well as several themed anthologies. Her novel Telling Sonny was recently released by Adelaide Books. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.

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  1. Good story! I had to read it through to the end. It reminds me of the saying, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.” With nowhere else to go, a bowl of stew from a can, and a place to sleep is a good thing. Andre did want her to stay, and it seems no one else cared much what she did. The ending could almost open up to another story, or chapter. What next, when she made it to Perley Block?

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