Bits of Daylight
By Elizabeth Roberts
I woke up at 7:30 that morning. I shouldn't have been up that early. It was the end of June, and I had no responsibilities. But my mom and sister rushing in and out of the bathroom, talking at each other hurriedly, woke and confused me. It wasn't like them to be up and about this early, especially with such urgency, and so upset.
My tired footsteps assaulted the steep, blue staircase. The television was on, and played muted local ads. Mom and Mary were rushing to leave somewhere.
"What's going on?" I asked. I sat on the stairs in my green plaid pajama pants, and a too-huge black tee shirt. My fingers grabbed the blue railing. The TV switched back to the news. I glanced at Mom, and moved down to the couch for a better view of the television. "Lizzy, there's a fire down at the shop. We're going in to see how bad it is." She had her worried voice on, and grabbed the keys and the cell phone. "Here," she said, thrusting the auxiliary phone in my hands, "watch the news and call me if anything happens." The ride to the shop was 15 minutes. What could happen in 15 minutes?
I glanced at the screen again and saw early clips of the inferno. The sky on the news was dark, and the flames licked for air. Outside it was already light. What could happen in 15 minutes? Something… anything could happen. Fires start in an instant.
The morning had started even earlier for my mother. A seven-o'clock phone call that barely roused me pulled her from her morning routine of feeding the cat. It was my aunt Nora, calling from work and fearing for our lives.
"Are you okay?" was her first question. Our house had been sleeping. Nora, who is a nurse, had been up for some time. Mom was rested and confused.
"Yeah, we're fine." We had all finished work early the day before, carefully cutting out ceramic butterfly shapes to make into wind chimes. It was a wedding favor and we were ahead in production, so none of the porcelain pieces came home to be finished the night before.
"Are you watching the news?" Nora gasped. "You're going to lose everything!"
Mom must have been confused. She turned on the radio and heard the news report. She swore. Mom then turned on the TV, and the picture said everything. She saw a building, firefighter cranes, and the cleaning van from the shop next door to ours. She saw the big, yellow ServiceMaster van with green writing on its side. The background was orange and smoky. Words, if she turned up the sound. "Watertown Center for Business and Industry… Building C… Starbuck Avenue… fire." She probably thought what I thought as I watched the same clip, over and over: “We're going to lose everything.”
Our business is everything.
The economy is failing in Northern New York. It's an area so far north, it isn't even upstate. Jobs are scarce and hope is leaving faster than so many paper mills, moving operations south. Neither my mother's associate's degree in business, nor my father's certificate in tourism and hospitality would help much in a place where businesses are closing and tourism is slack. To live, my parents began to create. They are artisans.
Running a small business that will support a family of five requires frugal living, mandatory participation, and the unrelenting drive to succeed beyond what working class people believe they are capable of. But no matter how determined people are to make their business work, nothing guarantees success. Nothing expressly forbids failure.
Life had been improving until that day. Orders were pouring in from the rich, fall brides from downstate, so our three huge kilns were always full of firing clay. Bird stores were clamoring for our ceramic birdhouses—unique little round things, made of red terra cotta—and craft show season was upon us. Our business had operated from the shop for a little over a year, after it had overgrown the back porch, the cellar, two rooms in our house, and sometimes the kitchen and living room (if we were really busy).
We had all gone out for ice cream the night before. Everyone had worked hard all day, and even though Mom and Dad didn't have enough cash to pay us a salary right away, we would get some reward. There had been no fighting, no bickering, and certainly no, "Mom, make her shut up!" Dad had been calm all day, too. He was eating properly, and the computer had stopped fighting against him—a battle dad rarely won. My brother Kristopher had been in school, and came to help out when he got home. The Long Island bride's order was scheduled to ship in a few days. We would finally have cash to buy groceries and appease the bill collectors. We stopped at the shop to pick up a cell phone on the way home. It was 11 o'clock, and everything there was normal.
Our business took years to create. We started when I was in ninth grade, when mom had to wash dishes at the mess halls on Fort Drum to buy food, while dad made the birdhouses in our dining room. The floor rusted out of the station wagon during that winter. When I was in tenth grade, we started to make money when my parents started designing wedding favor wind chimes. The idea caught on and a trend erupted. Mom and dad picked out a new car.
Eleventh grade… we bought a new kiln for the basement. Birdhouses and wind chimes were flying from our back porch and living room. The floor in our house was tinted red from the terra cotta dust. During my senior year of high school, we moved to the shop.
We moved at the beginning of spring, when there was still snow on the ground, and still more threatening to fall. The red, terra cotta dust streaked our driveway for months. In the spring and summer, Boston University correspondence littered the shop's brown, wind chime-tying couch. The five of us were churning out wedding favors by the hundreds, spending every afternoon and evening in the gritty, dusty, industrial relic that was our shop. Perseverance bore many rewards that summer; business exploded.
And now, I had been through a year of college. It was summertime again, though the weather was still cool. We all spent a lot of time working in the shop. I had memorized the little cracks in the yellow, cinderblock walls, and had acquainted myself with the vile, brown plaid of the string-covered shop couch. Some of my books were piled on it or next to it. Mom had never bothered to take them home.
I could see it all in my mind: sitting there in pajamas, on the couch, with the phone in my hand. And all, I feared, that I would be able to experience of it later would be the outside and the flames.
Was our shop burning? Or was the blaze contained to the only business the news bothered to mention? What about my books, my yearbook, the molds dad had spent so much time creating, and the orders that had to be shipped in two days? I had to wonder-would we lose everything?
Mom took me to the shop later that morning. The flames had spared our enterprise. Nevertheless, we lost most of our equipment, stock, and brand-new shipping supplies to smoke and water. It was two years' income, and was all ruined in a few, sleepy hours.
The air near the building smelled like hundreds of campfires, and huge yellow hoses snaked up the street and into the parking lot. The building no longer shot flames, but the heat of the blaze still lingered. The morning had been chilly, but near the building the air was as warm as July. Water from the fire hoses flooded the parking lot, as gawking locals who wandered up to see the commotion were turned away by police officers.
We saw a smoky mess. Cellutech, the business tumbling through the news, was the origin of the fire. It was a specialty company, and used paper mill byproducts to create a product that absorbs hazardous oil spills. Welding sparks in their area of the building had smoldered overnight, and by 2 a.m., had found all the fuel they could want in Cellutech's papery product. Cellutech's owner had used all his retirement money to fund the enterprise, but never purchased insurance for the company.
His morning had been the earliest. The building managers had called him in Massachusetts at 3 a.m. He drove at least five hours to arrive a little before noon, devastated. His end of the building was now a smoking, dripping mass of contorted, charred beams and daylight.
I saw the new daylight, too, when the fire chief let us into the shop to collect the unfired wind chime pieces we needed for the order. When we opened the door, the tang of smoke assaulted us, and inches of water stood staring at us. The ceiling tiles in our back hallway had fallen, revealing a space above we had never seen. Wires were strung everywhere, and lights hung from feet and feet of cable, while rows of shattered, green windows watched the world. Their panes were under our feet in thick shards, and the bits of daylight that poked through the afternoon clouds’ cover found their way through those shattered windows and onto our wet shoes. Mom picked up some of the bigger pieces of glass to keep them for a stained glass project.
One firefighter helped us gather the fragile, dry little porcelain hearts and butterflies. They were easy things to break before they were fired, and impossible to fix. Stack by stack, they found dry homes in cardboard flats, and were carried to our little trailer in the parking lot. Those pieces, our ceramic tools, and a few bags of clay were all we could really use without shop space to work in. Operations returned to our back porch and living room in order to fill orders placed months before.
We decided to leave the remains of Building C behind us. As soon as our insurance check arrived, my parents rented a tractor-trailer, and we gathered in grubby work clothes to pack our shop into the truck. Everything inside the shop was coated with a layer of soot and gave off a strong smoke smell. No stock survived, so we ordered a dumpster and made a day of hefting our birdhouse molds into it. The red trail of terra cotta dust reappeared outside our shop, but it was leading away. The birdhouses are still out of production.
Now a white spec permeates our home from processing so many tinkling, chiming favors. No bride was denied her chimes after the fire, and we worked tenaciously to fill every order. Mom bought a new house, which must be fixed-up before we move. Until then, we have to live with the porcelain dust. It's less dingy than the red clay dust, and looks like hope. It leads from our living room, through the kitchen, to the back door, into our closed porch, and into the back yard. The trail stops here—on the warped, red picnic table that Dad and Kris built, and where boards covered with still, white butterflies, and crisp little hearts are set to soak up bits of daylight.