Twenty-one years old, already divorced with two children, I am of age but I don’t know how to be a mom and bread winner both. This particular morning, I am exhausted after working a morning radio promotion after an all-night on-air shift. I stuff bags full of dirty laundry and set it by the door to do later, before I fall asleep on the couch.
I wake up to Shawna shaking me, “Mommy! Mommy!”
Groggily, I look at her and try to process why she’s holding a beer bottle.
“Mommy! Jennifer started a fire under the bed!”
Not fully awake, I jump up from the couch and run to the kids’ bedroom, where smoke is billowing. I look under the mattress and see a crumpled pack of Marlboros, a broken cigarette, and a lighter lying there, flames licking the mattress. Monkey see. Monkey do.
“Jennifer!” I scream. Shawna is right behind me. “Where is she? Where is she?” Shawna shakes her head, eyes wide, pupils dilated. She doesn’t know.
“I tried to put the fire out,” my little girl says. She is the elder of my two daughters. Later I find out that she filled up the empty beer bottle with water trying to douse the fire. Oh my sweet sweet girl.
I am frantic to find Jennifer.
“Jennifer! Jennifer Lea!” There is no answer. I run to my bedroom and look all around, then under the bed, in my closet. Back to the girl’s room, I look in their closet. I’m screaming her name. As, I pull the bedroom door behind me to leave, I see her crouched down in a squat behind the door, looking scared. She knows she’s in big trouble.
“Oh Jennifer,” I grab her up, then I am screaming, “Never hide like that again! Oh my God! Do you know? Do you have any idea, you could die…” but my voice trails off. She is not even three years old, her sister five.
I run to the kitchen, Shawna stays by my side, Jennifer in my arms, and grab the phone. In the bedroom, the smoke gets thicker, the mattress is smoldering. I don’t even try to get the fire out; it’s too far gone. My sweet sweet girls.
Next door, we wait at the neighbor’s house for the fire truck. The neighbor has an immaculate house. Her kids are elementary school age and, though our families live in cheap housing in an industrial area of Colorado Springs, and her family is poor, she takes pride in her cleanliness, her domestic chores, and her children’s good behavior. She begins to admonish me about sleeping and not taking care of my kids.
“I take good care of them!” I protest. I try to explain that I was working all night, didn’t mean to fall asleep. I love my neighbor. Sometimes she gives us bowls of homemade chili, babysits for me; she teaches me Spanish words. Abuela. Ninas. Comida. Limpiando.
“No, senorita, “she says grimly in her accent, and points, “Look at their hair! Eeesa mess.”
I am shocked. Of course I take good care of them, but looking at them now, I see that it’s true. Their hair is uncombed, disheveled, and Jennifer has spaghetti stains down the front of her t-shirt.
Susio. My neighbor shakes her head at me.
The fire chief knocks on the door and asks to speak with me and the kids. We go back to our apartment where the fire has been put out and the chief questions me. What happened?
I explain that I work overnights; I worked overtime at a promotion that morning and fell asleep on the couch, while the kids were napping. I didn’t hear them get up. Of course, they would have been very quiet, considering that they were busy lighting a fire under their bed.
The fire chief tells me we might have perished if Shawna had not awakened me and I know this is true. Tears roll down my cheeks while I look at my neglected little girls, their hair a mess, clothing soiled, their little faces earnest.
“I work overnights,” I say again, as though that will change something.
I work overnights, I want to say, because I want to make something of myself. It’s the only shift I can get in radio right now. It’s hard to break into radio: first, as a woman, and second, as a new unknown disc jockey. I have to pay my dues and that includes working overnights. I barely have a GED in place of a high school diploma and no college degree. I’m lucky to even be in radio, to work at a medium market radio station instead of out in the sticks, and for that I am paid a pittance, and still have to rely on food stamps. But all I say to the chief is that once I get on days, it will be easier.
The chief gives the kids a stern lecture about fire safety before leaving. He stresses the fact that we could all be burned up, how lucky we are.
I don’t need him to tell me. The images of Shawna with the beer bottle she filled up with water trying to put the fire out and Jennifer hiding behind the door stay with me.
As soon as the fire chief leaves, I get busy. I wash their little hands and faces, dressing them in clean clothing. Usually exuberant and active, they are subdued, obedient. I put Shawna’s hair in perfect little pigtails; Jennifer’s hair is barely there but I manage to capture wispy blond strands with a tiny blue barrette.
We go to the laundromat where I wash, dry, and fold a mountain of clothes. I fold very carefully. I fold every single piece of their clothing, some multiple times. I smooth the little blouses; make little stacks of pants, t-shirts, undies, and the tiny socks. I put all the pajama tops and bottoms together. I match all the socks, so many with ruffled lace edges.
The girls are somber and listen to my directions, well-behaved for a change, after such a scare. They perch on the plastic laundromat chairs, legs dangling, and thumb through the magazines. I tell them to find pictures of doggies and I put load after load in the washers, in the dryers. Their clothing is warm beneath my fingers, but it seems to me that I will never, ever get all the wrinkles out.
I keep washing and drying. I keep folding.