Thursday, September 27, 2012


This post was inspired by Mama Kat's writing prompt: Tell a story (based on truth or fiction) where someone is playing with fire--literally or metaphorically--and probably shouldn't be. Below is my true story.

        When I arrived at my Peace Corps site in a small town in northeastern Brazil in August of 1967 and discovered I would be living without electricity or running water, it seemed like my life there would be much like a two-year-long camping trip. I had been a Girl Scout. I thought I was prepared for anything.
        It was fun for a while, using my scouting and camping skills and learning new ones to survive the harsh conditions there, but after a while, I missed many of the conveniences of home.
        On one occasion, forgetting that things didn’t work in Glória the way they did at home, could have turned into a disaster.

        In order to furnish her extra bedroom, Brunie (another Volunteer who had already been in Glória for a year) helped me purchase a hand-made wooden bed at a carpenter's shop, along with an extra chair, a wardrobe and a mattress which was a large cotton sack filled with straw. The mattress was comfortable enough, although I needed to add more straw from time to time since the original straw eventually broke into small pieces and settled on the bottom side of the sack.
        I always slept under a mosquito net, as protection from mosquitos, scorpions and beetles that carried Chagas disease.
        While one side of the house faced an open area, the opposite side was the wall shared with our landlord’s home. The opposite wall of his house was shared with another neighbor and so on down the street. There was a space between the horizontal top of each wall and the pointed roof, leaving a large triangular opening between homes. This made it easy to converse with the neighbors next door, but it also meant one could hear everything going on in the landlord's home. He and his wife were newlyweds, so you might imagine what "everything" means.
        Our front door left an inch or two of open space between the bottom of it and the floor. This, plus the open area between houses, meant that unwanted varmints could enter the house, either from outside or from neighbors' homes. We had toads, mice, bats, roaches, tarantulas, and an occasional snake in the house. 
        I hadn’t taken much jewelry with me, only a few pair of earrings, several inexpensive rings and a watch which I kept in a box on the wicker table I used as a night stand. One morning, while making the bed, I knocked the box to the floor, scattering everything under the bed.
        Because of the vermin that could be there, I was not about to reach into the shadows below the mattress without seeing what was lurking there. So, I did what I would do at home. I grabbed a lamp, and placed it under the bed. I started to pick up my jewelry before I realized that a kerosene lantern with an open flame under a mattress filled with straw was not the brightest idea I ever had.

        I yelled for Brunie who was, luckily, in the kitchen, to bring a pot of water from the huge ceramic storage container there. Meanwhile I beat the flames with a towel. 
        Within a few minutes, the fire was out. The sheets were burned in one large area as was part of my mattress. Considering it was filled with dry straw, I was surprised it wasn't engulfed in flames within seconds. The wooden frame of the bed was blackened on a small area on one side, more scorched than burned. 
        Fortunately the mosquito net had been flung aside before I started to make the bed. If it had caught fire, the flames might have leaped to the ceiling where the net was attached to a lattice of wood that supported the ceramic tile roof. Since the homes were attached, the fire might have spread from lattice to lattice, resulting in the collapse of every roof on that side of the street. 
        Glória had no fire department. Because there was no running water, residents would not have been able to use hoses to spray water on their ceilings. Any attempt to throw water that high from buckets would have been futile. 
        I am so glad I hadn't caused neighbors to lose their homes or belongings. Worse yet would have been if I had caused someone a serious injury.
        I could imagine the headline: PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER'S STUPIDITY LEAVES DOZENS OF BRAZILIANS HOMELESS.  But luckily that didn't happen.

       After cleaning the charred, wet mess in my room, I carried my mattress to the carpenter's store to buy new sheets and have the mattress cover re-stuffed and patched. It retained a burnt odor for months.

        Then I headed to a different shop to make another prudent purchase ---a flashlight.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

241 Front Street (Fiction)

This story is in response to a writing prompt at Views from Raven's Nest.  Each week Raven chooses words or phrases for anyone to use in a piece of writing.  She creates a 10-word challenge and a 5-word challenge, or one can use both for the 15-word mega-challenge.

This weeks words are: (I chose to use all 15)
vocalize, vandal, virtue, visitor, vim and vigor, vermillion, vague, vacuous, vines, validate,  voodoo, vixen, veracity, valid, vital

241 Front Street

Vivian took one step up the outside wooden stairs to her second-floor apartment at 241 East Front Street,  Sarah, her landlady, was trimming the dead vines from the trellis on the side of the porch.

“Hi, Viv," Sarah yelled over her shoulder. "Say, who was that hunky visitor with you last night?” 

Vivian answered. “No one. I wasn’t even home.”

“Don’t kid me, Viv.  I heard the two of you up there.  Sounded like you were having a very, well, um, lively encounter. I’ve always liked a man with vim and vigor," said Sarah with a come-hither stare that wouldn’t have turned on a sex addict.

“Really, Sarah, I wasn’t here. I stayed at my sister’s last night working to defeat that idiot who is running for City Council in the third district again.”

“Oh, him,” Sarah interrupted. “Now that is one fine looking man. Him with the $3,000 suits and a one-cent brain.”

“Yeah, and the vacuous look on his face. Even his wife couldn’t stand him. She left him last year.”  

Sarah looked at Vivian’s vermillion bag. “What’ve you got there?”

“Campaign information.” 

She hefted her large tote overflowing with papers to the third step as if to validate the veracity of her statement. 

“Someone was in my apartment? How did he get in? What did he look like?”  

“Well, I thought you let him in,” answered Sarah.  She scrunched her forehead and added, “He was tall.”

Dissatisfied with Sarah’s vague description, Vivian demanded to know the color of his hair and eyes, what he was wearing, and what time he arrived and left.

“Well, it was late when he got here. I peaked out the window before I turned off the porch light.  He headed up the stairs as if he belonged, so I just assumed, well, you know.  But I didn’t see him leave. Maybe he’s still there.” 

“And his appearance?”

“Well, I thought he wore sunglasses, but then I thought it must have been the way the light hit them. He had on a dark turtleneck pulled up on his chin, a ball cap. Oh, and dark pants and maybe gloves.”

“Did he have a car?”

“There was a silver car where you usually park, so I thought it was yours, that you had gone up ahead of him.  And I think he carried something, maybe a knapsack.”

Vivian picked up her bag and started up the stairs.

“Hold on a minute.” Sarah entered the house, emerging a minute later with a hammer in each hand.

At the top of the stairs, the women found the door ajar with a broken lock.  Inside, Vivian’s place had been ransacked.  Everything she owned was strewn on the floor. Pillows had been cut open, clothes had been ripped, and food containers emptied. Her living room walls had been spray-painted with “You lying vixen!” and “You are without virtue, you slut” in fluorescent pink.

The women tiptoed through the mess in silence, until Sarah came upon a voodoo doll nailed to the dinette table with what looked like blood spattered over it.  Then she started to vocalize, “No, no, no, no, no,” which eventually turned into a low-pitched moan. She slumped onto the couch releasing a puff of stuffing from a huge slit.

Vivian grabbed her cell phone to dial 911.

It took the police forty minutes to arrive.  After Vivian and Sarah had given their vital statistics and made statements to Detectives Johnson and Ramsey, the men continued questioning Vivian.  Was it her ex-husband or ex-boyfriend?  Was she having problems with someone at work?  Who hated her? Then they seemed to imply she had done the damage herself to generate sympathy from an estranged lover. Vivian had no idea who the vandal could be, but the police didn’t seem to think her statements were valid and continued asking the same questions over and over. What they didn’t do was take photos or fingerprints.  

Vivian was not only angry at the person who had done this, she was furious at the police.

After they left, she used her cell phone to take photos of the mess.  Then she picked through her belongings and packed a suitcase with a few intact items, grabbed her red tote, and closed her door as best she could before heading to her sister’s home. 

The next week, Vivian sorted through her possessions, salvaging what she could, while Sarah and a handyman repaired the door, cleaned the mess, and repainted the walls.  

Vivian moved to the far end of town, instructing Sarah to give her new address to no one.

Two weeks later, Detective Ramsey called her cell phone to tell her that a similar incident had happened two blocks from her old apartment.  

“You’re lucky,” he said.  “When the occupant arrived home, the intruder tried to stab her. But he stumbled over the mess he had made and missed. The woman had her keys in her hand and managed to poke him in the eye.  He'll probably be wearing an eye patch for the rest of his life. That'll ruin his handsome good looks. 

"It turns out he was the woman’s ex-husband."

When the police questioned the suspect in the hospital, he broke down and admitted that the vandalism of Vivian’s apartment had been a mistake.  He had gone to 241 instead of 421 on Vivian’s street.  

“You’ll be seeing a story on the evening news. The chief is holding a press conference right now. You know, the idiot didn’t even ask for a lawyer,” he added. 

“Good looking and stupider than a turnip,” said Vivian.  “He ought to become a politician.”

Detective Ramsey paused, then said, “Funny you should mention that.”