Chapter no 3

Little Fires Everywhere

The next few weeks became a series of tomorrows for Moody. They went to Fernway, his old elementary school, where they clambered up the slide and shimmied up the pole and tumbled from the

catwalk to the wood chips below. He took Pearl to Draeger’s for hot fudge sundaes. At Horseshoe Lake, they climbed trees like children, throwing stale chunks of bread to the ducks bobbing below. In Yours Truly, the local diner, they sat in a high-backed wooden booth and ate fries smothered in cheese and bacon and fed quarters into the jukebox to play “Great Balls of Fire” and “Hey Jude.”

“Take me to see the Shakers,” Pearl suggested one day, and Moody laughed.

“There aren’t any Shakers in Shaker Heights,” he said. “They all died out. Didn’t believe in sex. They just named the town after them.”

Moody was half right, though neither he nor most of the kids in the town knew much about its history. The Shakers had indeed left the land that would become Shaker Heights long before, and by the summer of 1997 there were exactly twelve left in the world. But Shaker Heights had been founded, if not on Shaker principles, with the same idea of creating a utopia. Order—and regulation, the father of order—had been the Shakers’ key to harmony. They had regulated everything: the proper time for rising in the morning, the proper color of window curtains, the proper length of a man’s hair, the proper way to fold one’s hands in prayer (right thumb over left). If they planned every detail, the Shakers had believed, they could create a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world, and the founders of Shaker Heights had thought the same. In advertisements they depicted Shaker Heights in the clouds, looking down upon the grimy city of Cleveland from a mountaintop at the end of a rainbow’s arch. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a

propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws. Even the teens of Shaker Heights—whose main exposure to Shakers was singing “Simple Gifts” in music class—could feel that drive for perfection still in the air.

As Pearl learned more about her new hometown, Moody began to learn more about Mia’s art, and the intricacies and vagaries of the Warren family finances.

Moody had never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap. Groceries appeared in the refrigerator at regular intervals and reappeared as cooked meals on the table at mealtimes. He had had an allowance since he was ten, starting at five dollars per week and increasing steadily with inflation and age up to its current twenty dollars. Between that and birthday cards from aunts and relatives, each reliably containing a folded bill, he had enough for a used book from Mac’s Backs, or the occasional CD, or new guitar strings, whatever he felt he needed.

Mia and Pearl got as much as they could used—or better yet, free. In just a few weeks, they’d learned the location of every Salvation Army store, St. Vincent de Paul’s, and Goodwill in the greater Cleveland area. The week they’d arrived, Mia had gotten a job at Lucky Palace, a local Chinese restaurant; several afternoons and evenings a week, she took and packaged up takeout orders at the counter. They soon learned that for dining out, everyone in Shaker seemed to prefer Pearl of the Orient, just a few blocks away, but Lucky Palace did a good takeout business. In addition to Mia’s hourly pay, the servers gave her a share of their tips, and when there was extra food, she took a few containers home—slightly stale rice, leftover sweet-and-sour pork, vegetables just past their prime—which sustained her and Pearl for most of the week. They had very little, but that wasn’t immediately obvious: Mia was good at repurposing. Lo mein, without its sauce, was topped with Ragú from a jar one night, reheated and topped with orange beef another. Old bedsheets, purchased for a quarter each at the thrift store, turned into curtains, a tablecloth, pillow covers. Moody thought of math class: a practical application of combinatorics. How many different ways could you combine mu shu pancakes and fillings? How many different combinations could you make with rice, pork, and peppers?

“Why doesn’t your mom get a real job?” Moody asked Pearl one afternoon. “I bet she could get more hours a week. Or maybe even a full-time spot at Pearl of the Orient, or some other place.” He had wondered this

all week, ever since he’d learned about Mia’s job. If she took on more hours, he reasoned, she would make enough for them to have a real sofa, real meals, perhaps a TV.

Pearl stared, brow furrowed, as if she simply did not understand the question.

“But she has a job,” she said. “She’s an artist.”

They had lived this way for years, with Mia taking a part-time job that earned just enough for them to get by. For as long as she could remember, Pearl had understood the hierarchy: her mother’s real work was her art, and whatever paid the bills existed only to make that art possible. Her mother spent several hours every day working—though at first Moody had not realized this was what she was doing. Sometimes she was downstairs in the makeshift darkroom she’d rigged up in the basement laundry room, developing rolls of film or making prints. Sometimes she seemed to spend all her time reading—things that weren’t obviously relevant to Moody, like cooking magazines from the 1960s, or car manuals, or an immense hardcover biography of Eleanor Roosevelt from the library—or even staring out the living room window at the tree just outside it. One morning when he arrived, Mia was toying with a loop of string, playing cat’s cradle, and when they returned she was still at it, weaving ever more complicated nets between her fingers and then suddenly unraveling them back into a single loop and beginning again. “Part of the process,” Pearl informed him as they cut through the living room, with the nonchalant air of a native unfazed by the curious customs of the land.

Sometimes Mia went out with her camera, but more often she might spend days, or even weeks, preparing something to photograph, with the actual taking of the photographs lasting only a few hours. For Mia, Moody learned, did not consider herself a photographer. Photography, at its heart, was about documentation, and he soon understood that for Mia photography was simply a tool, which she used as a painter might use a brush or a knife.

A plain photograph might be doctored later: with embroidered carnival masks obscuring the faces of the people within, or the figures themselves might be clipped out, paper-doll style, and dressed in clothes cut from fashion magazines. In one set of photos, Mia rinsed the negatives before making prints that were oddly distorted—a photo of a clean kitchen speckled with spots from lemonade; a photo of laundry on the clothesline rendered ghostlike and warped by bleach. In another set, she carefully

double-exposed each frame—layering a far-off skyscraper over the middle finger of her hand; superimposing a dead bird, wings akimbo on the pavement, over a blue sky, so that except for the closed eyes, it looked as if it were flying.

She worked unconventionally, keeping only photos she liked and tossing the rest. When the idea was exhausted, she kept a single print of each shot and destroyed the negatives. “I’m not interested in syndication,” she said to Moody rather airily, when he asked why she didn’t make multiples. She seldom photographed people—occasionally, she would take a picture of Pearl, as with the bed on the lawn, but she never used them in her work. She never used herself either: once, Pearl told Moody, she had done a series of self-portraits, wearing different objects as masks—a piece of black lace, five-fingered horse-chestnut leaves, a damp and pliant starfish—had spent a month on these photos, narrowing them down to a set of eight. They’d been beautiful and eerie, and even now Pearl could see them exactly: her mother’s bright eye like a pearl peeking out between the legs of the starfish. But at the last moment Mia had burned the prints and negatives, for reasons even Pearl could not fathom. “You spent all that time,” she’d said, “and just pfft”—she snapped her fingers—“like that?”

“They weren’t working” was all Mia would say.

But the pictures she did keep, and sold, were startling.

In their luxurious sublet in Ann Arbor, Mia had taken various pieces of her hosts’ furniture apart and arranged the components—bolts as thick as her finger, unvarnished crossbeams, disembodied feet—into animals. A bulky secretary desk from the nineteenth century transformed into a bull, the sides of the disassembled drawers forming muscled legs, the cast-iron knobs of its drawer pulls serving as the bull’s nose and eyes and glinting balls, a handful of pens from inside the desk fanned out into the crescents of horns. With Pearl’s help, she had laid the pieces out on the cream-colored Persian carpet, which as a backdrop looked like a field fogged with steam, and then she had climbed on top of a table to photograph it from above before they picked it back apart and reassembled it into a desk. An old Chinese birdcage, broken down into a web of arched wires, had become an eagle, its brassy skeletal wings spread as if about to take flight. An overstuffed sofa had become an elephant, trunk raised in trumpet song. The series of photos that emerged from this project were both intriguing and unsettling, the animals incredibly intricate and lifelike, and then you looked

closer and realized what they had been made of. She had sold quite a few of these, through her friend Anita, a gallery owner in New York—a person Pearl had never met in a place she’d never been. Mia hated New York, would never go even to promote her own work. “Anita,” Mia had said into the phone once, “I love you dearly but I cannot come to New York for a show. No, not even if it meant I’d sell a hundred pieces.” A pause. “I know it does, but you know I can’t. All right. You do what you can, and that’s good enough for me.” Still, Anita had managed to sell a half dozen of the series, which meant instead of cleaning houses Mia had been able to spend the next six months working on a new project.

That was how her mother worked: one project for four or six months, then on to the next. She’d work and work and come up with a group of photos and Anita would usually be able to sell at least a few of them in her gallery. At first the prices had been so modest—a few hundred dollars per piece—that Mia sometimes had to take on two jobs, or even three. But as time went on, her work became regarded well enough in the art world that Anita could sell more pieces, for more money: enough to pay for what Mia and Pearl needed—food, rent, gas for the Rabbit—even after Anita’s fifty-percent cut. “Two or three thousand dollars, sometimes,” Pearl told him with pride, and Moody did quick mental math: if Mia sold ten pictures a year . . .

Sometimes the photos did not sell—a project Mia did with skeletal leaves sold only one, and for several months she took up a series of odd jobs: housecleaning, flower arranging, cake decorating. She was good at anything that involved her hands, and she preferred the jobs where she did not have to work with customers, where she could be alone and thinking, to waitressing, secretarying, salesclerking. “I was a salesgirl once, before you were born,” she told Pearl. “I lasted one day. One. The manager kept telling me how to put the dresses on hangers. Customers would pull the beads off clothes and demand discounts. I’d rather mop a floor, alone in the house, than deal with that.”

But other projects did sell, and got attention. One series—which Mia began after she’d been doing some seamstress work—supported them for nearly a year. She would go to thrift stores and buy old stuffed animals— faded teddy bears, ratty plush dogs, threadbare rabbits—the cheaper the better. At home, she took them apart at the seams, washed their pelts, fluffed their filling, repolished their eyes. Then she stitched them back

together, inside out, and the results were eerily beautiful. The ragged fur, in reverse, took on the look of shorn velvet. The whole animal, resewn and restuffed, had the same shape but a different bearing, the backs and necks straighter, the ears perkier; the eyes shone now with a knowing glint. It was as if the animal had been reincarnated, older and bolder and wiser. Pearl had loved watching her mother at work, bent over the kitchen table, laboring with the precision of a surgeon—scalpel, needle, pins—to transform these toys into art. Anita had sold every photo in this series; one had even, she reported, made its way to MoMA. She’d begged Mia to take another round, or to reprint the series, but Mia had refused. “The idea is done,” she said. “I’m working on something else now.” And she always was, always something a bit different, always something that had struck her fancy. She would be famous someday, Pearl was certain; someday her adored mother would be one of those artists, like de Kooning or Warhol or O’Keeffe, whose name everyone knew. It was why part of her, at least, didn’t mind the life they’d always lived, their thrift-store clothes, their salvaged beds and chairs, the shifting precariousness of it all. One day everyone would see her mother’s brilliance.

To Moody, this kind of existence was all but unfathomable. Watching the Warrens live was like watching a magic trick, as miraculous as transforming an empty soda can into a silver pitcher, or pulling a steaming pie from a silk top hat. No, he thought: it was like watching Robinson Crusoe conjure up a living out of nothingness. The more time he spent with Mia and Pearl, the more fascinated he became with them.

Through his afternoons with Pearl, Moody slowly learned some of what their life on the road was like. They traveled lightly: two plates and two cups and a handful of mismatched silverware; a duffel of clothes each; and, of course, Mia’s cameras. In the summer, they drove with the windows down, for the Rabbit had no air-conditioning; in the winter, they drove by night, the heat cranked up, and in the daytime would park in a sunny spot, sleeping in the snug greenhouse of the car before starting again as the sun set. At night, Mia pushed the bags into the footwells and laid a folded army blanket across them and the backseat, forming a bed that could just hold them both. For privacy, they draped a sheet from the hatchback over the headrests of the front seats to make a little tent. At mealtimes they stopped by the side of the road, feeding themselves from the paper bag of groceries behind the driver’s seat: bread and peanut butter, fruit, sometimes salami or

a stick of pepperoni, if Mia found it on sale. Sometimes they drove for just a few days, sometimes for a week, until Mia found a spot that felt right, and they would stop.

They would find an apartment for rent: usually a studio, sometimes an efficiency, whatever they could afford and wherever they could go month to month, for Mia did not like to be tied down. They would set up their new apartment as they had in Shaker, with castoffs and thrift-store finds made fresh, or at least tolerable; Mia would enroll Pearl in the local school and find work enough to support them. And then Mia would begin her next project, working, worrying the idea like a bone, for three months or four or six months, until she had a set of photographs to dispatch to Anita in New York City.

She would set up a darkroom in the bathroom, after Pearl had fallen asleep. After the first few moves, she’d gotten it down to a science: trays for washing prints in the bathtub, a clothesline for drying strung from the shower rod, a rolled-up towel across the bottom of the door to block out any extra light. When she was finished, she stacked her trays, folded her enlarger into its case, hid her jugs of chemicals under the sink, and scrubbed the bathtub so that it was sparkling for Pearl’s shower the next morning.

She would crack the bathroom window and go to bed, and by the time Pearl woke, the sour smell of developer would be gone. Once Mia mailed her photographs, Pearl always knew, they would pack up the car again and the entire process would repeat. One town, one project, and then it was time to move on.

This time, though, was to be different. “We’re staying put,” Pearl told him, and Moody felt suddenly, giddily buoyant, like an overfilled balloon. “My mom promised. This time we’re staying for good.”

Their itinerant, artistic lifestyle appealed to him: Moody was a romantic at heart. He made the honor roll every semester, but unburdened by practicalities, he had daydreams about leaving school, traveling the country à la Jack Kerouac—only writing songs instead of poems. Mac’s Backs supplied him with well-worn copies of On the Road and Dharma Bums, the poems of Frank O’Hara and Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda, and to his delight he found in Pearl another poetic soul. She hadn’t read as much as he had, of course, because they had moved so often, but she had spent most of her childhood in libraries, taking refuge among the shelves as a new girl bouncing from school to school, absorbing books as if they were air—

and, in fact, she told him shyly, she wanted to be a poet. She copied her favorite poems into a beat-up spiral notebook that she kept with her at all times. “So they’ll always be with me,” she said, and when she finally allowed Moody to read some of them, he was speechless. He wanted to twine himself in the tiny curlicues of her handwriting. “Beautiful,” he sighed, and Pearl’s face lit up like a lantern, and the next day Moody brought his guitar, taught her to play three chords, and bashfully sang one of his songs for her, which he’d never sung for anyone else.

Pearl, he soon discovered, had a fantastic memory. She could remember passages after reading them through just once, could recall the dates of the Magna Carta and the names of the kings of England and every one of the presidents in order. Moody’s grades came from meticulous studying and plenty of flash cards, but everything seemed to come easily to Pearl: she could glance at a math problem and intuit the answer while Moody dutifully worked line after line of algebra down the page; she could read an essay and put her finger, at once, on the most salient point or the biggest logical flaw. It was as if she had glanced at a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces and saw the whole picture without even consulting the box. Pearl’s mind, it became clear, was an extraordinary thing, and Moody could not help but admire how fast her brain worked, how effortlessly. It was a pure pleasure, watching her click everything into place.

The more time they spent together, the more Moody began to feel he was in two places at once. At any given moment—every moment he could arrange, in fact—he was there with Pearl, in the booth at the diner, in the fork of a tree, watching her big eyes drink in everything around them as if she were ferociously thirsty. He would crack dumb jokes and tell stories and dredge up bits of trivia, anything to make her smile. And at the same time, in his mind, he was roaming the city, searching desperately for the next place he could take her, the next wonder of suburban Cleveland he could display, because when he ran out of places to show her, he was sure, she would disappear. Already he thought he saw her growing silent over their fries, prodding the last congealed lump of cheese on the plate; already he was sure her eyes were drifting across the lake to the far shore.

This was how Moody made a decision he would question for the rest of his life. Until now he had said nothing about Pearl or her mother to his family, guarding their friendship like a dragon guards treasure: silently, greedily. Deep down he had the feeling that somehow it would change

everything, the way in fairy tales magic was spoiled if you shared the secret. If he had kept her to himself, perhaps the future might have been quite different. Pearl might never have met his mother or his father, or Lexie or Trip or Izzy, or if she had, they might have been people she only greeted but didn’t know. She and her mother might have stayed in Shaker forever, as they’d planned; eleven months later, the Richardson house might still have been standing. But Moody did not think of himself as interesting enough to hold her attention in his own right. Had he been a different Richardson, it might have been different; his brother and sisters never worried whether other people would like them. Lexie had her golden smile and her easy laugh, Trip had his looks and his dimples: why wouldn’t people like them, why would they ever even ask such a thing? For Izzy, it was even simpler: she didn’t care what people thought of her. But Moody did not possess Lexie’s warmth, Trip’s roguish charm, Izzy’s self-confidence. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in late July, “Come over. You can meet my family.”

When Pearl entered the Richardsons’ house for the first time, she paused with one foot on the threshold. It was just a house, she told herself. Moody lived here. But even that thought struck her as slightly surreal. From the sidewalk, Moody had nodded at it almost bashfully. “That’s it,” he’d said, and she had said, “You live here?” It wasn’t the size—true, it was large, but so was every house on the street, and in just three weeks in Shaker she’d seen even larger. No: it was the greenness of the lawn, the sharp lines of white mortar between the bricks, the rustle of the maple leaves in the gentle breeze, the very breeze itself. It was the soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass that mingled in the entryway, the one corner of the throw rug that flipped up like a cowlick, as if someone had mussed it and forgotten to smooth it out. It was as if instead of entering a house she was entering the idea of a house, some archetype brought to life here before her. Something she’d only heard about but never seen. She could hear signs of life in far-off rooms—the low mumble of a TV commercial, the beep of a microwave running down its count—but distantly, as if in a dream.

“Come on in,” Moody said, and she stepped inside.

Later it would seem to Pearl that the Richardsons must have arranged themselves into a tableau for her enjoyment, for surely they could not always exist in this state of domestic perfection. There was Mrs. Richardson

in the kitchen making cookies, of all things—something her own mother never did, though if Pearl begged hard she would sometimes buy a log of shrink-wrapped dough for them to slice into rounds. There was Mr.

Richardson, a miniature out on the wide green lawn, deftly shaking charcoal into a shining silver grill. There was Trip, lounging on the long wraparound sectional, impossibly handsome, one arm slung along the back as if waiting for some lucky girl to come and sit beside him. And there was Lexie, across from him in a pool of sunlight, turning her luminous eyes from the television toward Pearl as she came into the room, saying, “Well now, and who do we have here?”

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