01
Jan
09

Toast of the Town

Bob Cox rolled slowly over to the edge of his bed then sat up. Sliding his feet into his slippers, he shuffled stiffly down the hall to the kitchen and switched on the light. He was going to have to pack up the dogs and make a trip to the store. There wasn’t much in the cupboard or refrigerator besides some wilted lettuce, a crusty jar of mustard, a few blackened and shriveled hot dogs, some questionable margarine and some bread which had seen better days. His ex-wife lived next door and he considered raiding her cupboards but she waved so cheerily at him as she set out for her morning walk that he had second thoughts. He scanned the bread for obvious mold then popped two slices in the toaster. He found a carton of milk, shook it, opened it, and set it in the sink. He had just set a pot of very weak coffee to perk when the phone rang.

I was standing in my driveway wondering if the tulips were ever going to peek out of the soil, never mind blooming, when Delores pulled up. Of all the parents of all the children I babysat, Delores was the most irritating. Maybe the reason was a small one like the fact her daughter knew none of her colors or numbers at the age of four. She could sing the Barney Song, complete with gestures, for hours on end. There was a serious lack of talent scouts cruising the local Safeway so colors and numbers would probably be more useful in the long run.

Or my reason for disliking her could have been something bigger such as her superior attitude because she had left the city three months before I had and was now an authority on country living.

“Whatcha doing?” She asked brightly.

“Looking for tulips,” I said. “I must have done something wrong. I don’t think they’re ever going to come up. The stores are full of tulips and look at this.” I pointed to the bare brown beds.

“Is this the first time you’ve grown flowers?”

“It’s the first time I’ve done it out here and if they’re all going to turn out like these it’s going to be the last time too.” Delores patted my shoulder comfortingly and gave me something like a smile.

“The ones in the store are from California. Probably raised in greenhouses,” she said. “Ours won’t be up for another three or four weeks.”

“Oh.”

“How was Jenny?”

“Um… Delightful as always,” I fumbled. “She learned a new song?”

“Oh, yes. She loves singing and dancing and she loves her Barney. How’s your neighbor?”

“Fine,” I said. Delores looked like she wanted more so I added, “I mean as far as I know he’s fine. He’s on vacation for a month in Klamath Falls.” Delores nodded then cocked her head like the RCA Victor dog.

“What’s that beeping noise?”

“I dunno. Probably somebody’s car alarm going off.”

“People out here don’t have car alarms,” Delores said, smiling again. “Hardly anyone locks their cars even.”

“Oh.”

“I should get Jenny and get moving but you might want to check out that noise.”

“Oh, of course.”

“We all look after each other out here on the frontier and it truly sounds like it’s coming from across the street.” She took a few steps into the yard, past the sad brown flower beds. We could see Jenny under one of the cherry trees bowing to an invisible but no doubt very appreciative audience. Delores called her daughter and they fell into a hugging and kissing fit as if she’d been away two decades rather than two hours. Eventually they were able to stumble to the car and, wrenching themselves apart, climbed in and drove away.

The street was quiet except for the strange beeping sound Delores had noticed. It really did seem to be coming from my neighbor’s house across the street. Suddenly the light bulb went on over my head and I ran into my own house shouting to my husband.

“Bob’s house is on fire!”

“What?”

“I said that Bob Cox’s house is on fire. His smoke alarm has been going off for quite a while now. It must be a big one. I’m going to call 911.” My husband lurched groggily up the stairs from where he’d fallen asleep in front of the woodstove.

“Did you check his house?” he asked reasonably.

“I’m not going over there if there’s a fire.”

“But you don’t know for sure it’s a fire, do you? Maybe it’s a car alarm.”

“They don’t have car alarms out here. Delores says they don’t even lock their cars.”

“Somebody should go over there…”

“There’s no time,” I said as I was dialing. “Look, if you want to go over there then go over there. He’ll be happy to see you in something besides that swimsuit he thought was underwear.”

“What? When was that?” I waved my hand to shush him. He drifted out of sight and the dispatcher came on the line.

“And the location of the fire?” she asked after I’d given her my name.

“I don’t know. I haven’t gone over to look. I thought it was better to stay out of the way.”

“Street and house number for the residence in which the fire is occurring?” I wracked my brain and tried to picture the house number beside the door across the street.

“Look, I can’t remember. Can you just tell them it’s down the street from the church and the graveyard out here on Prairie Lane?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my husband toss on his coat and head out the back door.

“Yes, ma’am. Please continue to monitor the fire from a distance and call us if anything changes.” Just as I was replacing the receiver my husband burst into the kitchen.

“Call them back and tell them not to come,” he said.

“What?”

“Bob’s house is not on fire.”

“How do you know?”

“I was just over there. You know how the back door opens into the kitchen?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it was unlocked so I pushed it open and there he was talking on the phone.”

“Talking on the phone? But what about the beeping?”

“Well, there was some bread charring pretty good in the toaster and he’s been gone almost a month. I’d guess the battery in the smoke alarm is probably getting low and that would beep and then he burned the toast and that probably set off the ones that still have good batteries.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I didn’t say anything. His back was to me and he was talking on the phone and I was so embarrassed that I just backed out the door and closed it.” I called the dispatcher back

“I’m sorry, ma’am but the emergency vehicles are on their way now.”

Even before my hand left the phone I heard a truck come squealing off the road. It crunched to a stop in my driveway. We walked out the back door. A tall young man stepped out of the truck. He pulled off his Kobayashi cap and ran his hand through his hair.

“Can I help you?” my husband said. “I live here.”

“I’m Bob Cox’s grandson and I heard his house was on fire so I came as quick as I could.”

“Funny thing about that,” I said but I didn’t get to finish the thought.

Two trucks pulled up and parked behind the grandson and more men in billed caps got out. Then a highly-polished car parked partly on our lawn. Debarking from the car was one of the most sharply turned-out ladies I’d ever seen.

“I don’t think we’ve met. My husband is the minster of the church over there,” she said extending her hand to me. I shook it reluctantly. I had seen her at church and it had made me ask myself a couple of questions. Should they be spending so much money on her clothes when they could be buying books for kids whose folks were in prison? And if going to church and seeing how well-dressed the preacher’s wife was caused me to envy her and envy is a deadly sin then what was the point of going to church anyway?

“I didn’t see any fire down there,” she continued, “so I drove up here. I don’t see any fire here either.”

“Yeah, well, the thing is…” I began. But no one could hear me or was trying to. More trucks had arrived including, finally, a small fire truck and an ambulance. Since they were the only ones supposed to be there and our little street was looking like the lot outside of Red’s Barbecue I was really confused.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me. Can I have your attention please?” I waved my arms. Nobody noticed except the preacher’s wife. She put two fingers to her mouth and whistled smartly like she was hailing a cab in downtown Someplace Bigger. “How did you all end up here? All I did was call the 911 dispatcher.”

“I got a call from Mrs. Henderson. She’s one of our church members,” the preacher’s wife said. “She heard on the scanner that there was a fire in or near the church and she was worried.”

“We heard it on the scanner too,” said one of the grandsons.

“I met somebody at the barber shop and he said he’d followed the trucks for a little ways,” said another.

“You know, way out here we’re a long way from help.” The lady who lived at the far end of the road and had three large dogs that liked to run in traffic had walked down and joined the conversation. “We’ve got to look out for each other.”

“That’s true,” one of the men said.

Then I explained to everybody several times that there was no fire other than the one in the toaster. But the firemen insisted on inspecting the house to be sure. And just as their last footfall was drowned out by a cacophony of dog barks and they reached to open the door, Bob Cox himself opened it and stepped onto the porch. Needless to say, he was mighty surprised to see the assembled throng trampling his grass.

“What’s all this?” He asked. His former wife having left an hour earlier for a quiet walk up the hill and missed the initial excitement, now arrived just in time to answer his question.

“I think,” she said, “that they’re here to welcome you back from vacation. I’m not sure about the firemen though.”

“That’s it,” I said gratefully. “We all got together to say we missed you.” The preacher’s wife harrumphed but one of the grandsons gave her a look.

The old man took off his glasses and swiped at his eyes. Probably the bright sun was making them water.

“Well if this doesn’t beat all,” he said. “This is really nice. I didn’t think anyone even noticed I was gone.”

“Of course,” I said. “We’ve all got to look out for each other you know.”

“This surely was nice,” he said. “But maybe next time you could just bake me a cake or something.”

Bob Cox looked over his shoulder into the kitchen and saw the incinerated toast, the curdled milk in the sink and the black half-eaten hot dog on the counter. Then he took a few steps towards the preacher’s wife.

“You know a small slice of cake would go down pretty good right now,” he said.

“I believe we have some at the house.”

“Coffee to wash it down with?”

“Almost certainly.”

“Then it’ll just take me a second to get my real shoes on. I did a lot of thinking on the ride back about the rules for leprosy in Leviticus and I know you’re hubby’ll want to hear about it.” The preacher’s wife might have cringed but it might have been a shiver from the chilly morning. Either way, Bob Cox didn’t see it. He was too busy imagining a plate with a big piece of chocolate cake on it. And winking at his young neighbor.

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1 Response to “Toast of the Town”


  1. 1 joy
    January 3, 2009 at 23:39

    what an enjoyable story..thanks


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