Chapter no 4

Little Fires Everywhere

The only member of the Richardson family that Pearl did not see much of in those giddy early days was Izzy—but at first she didn’t notice. How could she, when the other Richardsons greeted her

with their long, enveloping arms? They dazzled her, these Richardsons: with their easy confidence, their clear sense of purpose, no matter the time of day. At Moody’s invitation, she spent hours at their house, coming over just after breakfast, staying until dinner.

Mornings, Mrs. Richardson sailed into the kitchen in high-heeled pumps, car keys and stainless-steel travel mug in hand, saying, “Pearl, so nice to see you again.” Then she click-clacked down the back hall, and in a moment the garage door rumbled open and her Lexus glided down the wide driveway, a golden pocket of coolness in the hot summer air. Mr.

Richardson, in his jacket and tie, had left long before, but he loomed in the background, solid and impressive and important, like a mountain range on the horizon. When Pearl asked what his parents did all day, Moody had shrugged. “You know. They go to work.” Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things. Every Thursday the paperboy deposited a copy of the Sun Press on Mia and Pearl’s doorstep—it was free to all residents—and when they unfolded it they saw Mrs. Richardson’s name on the front page under the headlines:


Tangible, black-and-white proof of her industriousness.

(“It’s not really a big deal,” Moody said. “The Plain Dealer is the real paper. The Sun Press is just local stuff: city council meetings and zoning boards and who won the science fair.” But Pearl, eyeing the printed byline

Elena Richardson—did not believe or care.)

They knew important people, the Richardsons: the mayor, the director of the Cleveland Clinic, the owner of the Indians. They had season tickets at Jacobs Field and the Gund. (“The Cavs suck,” Moody put it succinctly. “Indians might win the pennant, though,” countered Trip.) Sometimes Mr.

Richardson’s cell phone—a cell phone!—would ring and he would extend the antenna as he stepped out into the hallway. “Bill Richardson,” he would answer, the simple statement of his name greeting enough.

Even the younger Richardsons had it, this sureness in themselves.

Sunday mornings Pearl and Moody would be sitting in the kitchen when Trip drifted in from a run, lounging against the island to pour a glass of juice, tall and tan and lean in gym shorts, utterly at ease, his sudden grin throwing her into disarray. Lexie perched at the counter, inelegant in sweatpants and a tee, hair clipped in an untidy bun, picking sesame seeds off a bagel. They did not care if Pearl saw them this way. They were so artlessly beautiful, even right out of bed. Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas?

When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, “Could I have . . . ?” She said, “I’ll have . . .” confidently, as if she had only to say it to make it so. It unsettled Pearl and it fascinated her. Lexie would slide down off her stool and walk across the kitchen with the elegance of a dancer, barefoot on the Italian tiles. Trip swigged the last of his orange juice and headed for the stairs and the shower, and Pearl watched him, her nostrils quivering as she breathed in the scent of his wake: sweat and sun and heat.

At the Richardson house were overstuffed sofas so deep you could sink into them as if into a bubble bath. Credenzas. Heavy sleigh beds. Once you owned an enormous chair like this, Pearl thought, you would simply have to stay put. You would have to plant roots and make the place that held this chair your home. There were ottomans and framed photographs and curio cabinets full of souvenirs, their very frivolousness reassuring. You did not bring home a carved seashell from Key West or a miniature of the CN Tower or a finger-sized bottle of sand from Martha’s Vineyard unless you intended to stay. Mrs. Richardson’s family, in fact, had lived in Shaker for three generations now—almost, Pearl learned, since the city had been founded. To have such a deep taproot in a single place, to be immersed in it so thoroughly that it had steeped into every fiber of your being: she couldn’t imagine it.

Mrs. Richardson herself was another source of fascination. If she had been on a television screen, she would have felt as unreal as a Mrs. Brady or a Mrs. Keaton. But there she was right in front of Pearl, always saying kind things. “What a pretty skirt, Pearl,” she would say. “That color suits you. All honors classes? How smart you are. Your hair looks so nice today. Oh, don’t be silly, call me Elena, I insist”—and then, when Pearl continued to call her Mrs. Richardson, she was secretly proud of Pearl’s respectfulness, Pearl was sure of it. Mrs. Richardson was quick to hug her

—her, Pearl, a virtual stranger—simply because she was one of Moody’s friends. Mia was affectionate but never effusive; Pearl had never seen her mother embrace anyone other than her. And yet there was Mrs. Richardson coming home for dinner, pecking each of her children atop the head and not even pausing when she got to Pearl, dropping a kiss onto her hair without a moment of hesitation. As if she were just one more chick in the brood.

Mia could not help but notice her daughter’s infatuation with the Richardsons. Some days Pearl spent the entire day at the Richardson house. She had been pleased at first, watching Moody and her lonely daughter, who had been uprooted so many times, who had never really been close to anyone. For so long, she could see now, she had made her daughter live by her whim: moving on anytime she needed new ideas; anytime she had felt stuck or uneasy. That’s over now, Mia had promised her as they drove toward Shaker. From now on, we are staying put. She could see the similarities between these two lonely children, even more clearly than they could: the same sensitive personalities lurking inside both of them, the same bookish wisdom layered over a deep naïveté. Moody would come by early each morning, before Pearl had even finished breakfast, and on waking Mia would draw the curtains to see Moody’s bike sprawled on the front lawn, and come into the kitchen to find him and Pearl at the table, dregs of raisin bran in the mismatched bowls before them. They would be gone all day, Moody pushing his bike by the handlebars alongside them. Mia, rinsing the bowls in the sink, made a mental note to look for a bike for Pearl. Perhaps the bike shop on Lee Road had a used one.

But as the weeks went on, it worried Mia a little, the influence the Richardsons seemed to have over Pearl, the way they seemed to have absorbed her into their lives—or vice versa. At dinner Pearl talked about the Richardsons as if they were a TV show she was fanatical about. “Mrs.

Richardson’s going to interview Janet Reno when she comes to town next

week,” she might say one day. Or, “Lexie says her boyfriend, Brian, is going to be the first black president.” Or—with a faint blush—“Trip’s going to be starting forward on the soccer team in the fall. He just found out.” Mia nodded and mm-hmmed, and wondered every evening if this was wise, if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.

Then she thought about the previous spring, when Pearl had gotten a cough so bad Mia had finally taken her to the hospital, where they learned it had turned into pneumonia. Sitting by her daughter’s bedside in the dark, watching her sleep, waiting for the antibiotics the doctor had given her to take effect, Mia had allowed herself to imagine: if the worst had happened, what kind of life would Pearl have lived? Nomadic, isolated. Lonely. That’s done with, she had told herself, and when Pearl had recovered they’d ended up in Shaker Heights, where Mia had promised they would stay. So she said nothing, and the next day another afternoon would pass with Pearl over at the Richardsons’ again, becoming more bewitched.

Pearl had started at new schools often enough, sometimes two or three times a year, to have lost her fear about it, but this time she was deeply apprehensive. To start a school knowing you’d be leaving was one thing; you didn’t need to worry what other people thought of you, because soon you’d be gone. She had drifted through every grade like that, never bothering to get to know anyone. To start a school knowing you’d see these people all year, and next year, and the year after that, was quite different.

But as it turned out, she and Moody shared nearly all their classes, from biology to Honors English to health. The first two weeks of school, he guided her through the hallways with the confidence only a sophomore could have, telling her which water fountains were the coldest, where to sit in the cafeteria, which teachers would give you a tardy slip if they caught you in the halls after the late bell, and which would wave you on with an indulgent smile. She began to navigate the school with the help of the murals, painted by students over the years: the exploding Hindenburg marked the science wing; Jim Morrison brooded by the auditorium balcony; a girl blowing pink bubbles led the way to the mysteriously named Egress, a cavernous hallway that doubled as overflow lunchtime seating. A trompe l’oeil row of lockers marked the hallway down to the Social Room, a lounge designated for the seniors, where there was a microwave for making popcorn during free periods, and a Coke machine that cost only fifty cents instead of seventy-five like the ones in the cafeteria, and a chunky black

cube of a jukebox left over from the seventies and now loaded with Sir Mix-a-Lot and Smashing Pumpkins and the Spice Girls. The year before, one student had painted himself and three friends, peeking down Kilroy-style, in the domed ceiling near the main entrance; one of them was winking, and every time Pearl passed beneath the dome she felt they were welcoming her in.

After school she went to the Richardsons’ house and sprawled on the sectional in the family room with the older children and watched Jerry Springer. It was a little ritual the Richardson kids had developed over the past few years, one of the few times they agreed on anything. It had never been planned and it was never discussed, but every afternoon, if Trip didn’t have practice and Lexie didn’t have a meeting, they gathered in the family room and turned to Channel 3. To Moody, it was a fascinating psychological study, every episode another example of just how strange humanity could be. To Lexie, it was akin to anthropology, the stripper moms and polygamous wives and drug-dealing kids a window into a world so far from hers it was like something out of Margaret Mead. And to Trip, the whole thing was pure comedy: a glorious slapstick spectacle, complete with bleeped-out tirades and plenty of chair throwing. His favorite moments were when guests’ wigs were pulled off. Izzy found the whole thing unspeakably idiotic and barricaded herself upstairs, practicing her violin. “The only thing Izzy actually takes seriously,” Lexie explained. “No,” Trip countered, “Izzy takes everything too seriously. That’s her problem.”

“The ironic thing,” Lexie said one afternoon, “is that in ten years we’re going to see Izzy on Springer.

“Seven,” Trip said. “Eight at most. ‘Jerry, Get Me Out of Jail!’” “Or ‘My Family Wants to Commit Me,’” Lexie agreed.

Moody shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Lexie and Trip treated Izzy as if she were a dog that might go rabid at any minute, but the two of them had always gotten along. “She’s just a little impulsive, that’s all,” he said to Pearl.

“A little impulsive?” Lexie laughed. “You don’t really know her yet, Pearl. You’ll see.” And the stories began to pour out, Jerry Springer temporarily forgotten.

Izzy, at ten, had been apprehended sneaking into the Humane Society in an attempt to free all the stray cats. “They’re like prisoners on death row,” she’d said. At eleven, her mother—convinced that Izzy was overly clumsy

—had enrolled her in dance classes to improve her coordination. Her father insisted she try it for one term before she could quit. Every class, Izzy sat down on the floor and refused to move. For the recital—with the aid of a mirror and a Sharpie—Izzy had written NOT YOUR PUPPET across her forehead and cheeks just before taking the stage, where she stood stock-still while the others, disconcerted, danced around her.

“I thought Mom was going to die of embarrassment,” Lexie said. “And then last year? Mom thought she wore too much black and bought her all these cute dresses. And Izzy just rolled them up in a grocery bag and took the bus downtown and gave them to some person on the street. Mom grounded her for a month.”

“She’s not crazy,” Moody protested. “She just doesn’t think.”

Lexie snorted, and Trip hit unmute on the remote, and Jerry Springer roared to life again.

The sectional seated eight, but even with only three Richardson children, there was always a fair amount of jockeying to get the spots with the best view. Now, with the addition of Pearl, there were even more complicated maneuverings. Whenever she could manage it, Pearl would drop— unobtrusively, nonchalantly, she hoped—into the seat next to Trip. All her life, her crushes had been from afar; she’d never had the courage to speak to any of the boys who caught her fancy. But now that they’d settled in Shaker Heights for good, now that Trip was here, in this house, sitting on the very same couch—well, it was perfectly natural, she told herself, that she might sit next to him now and then; no one could read into that, surely, least of all Trip. Moody, meanwhile, felt he deserved the seat beside Pearl: he was the one who had introduced her to the fold, and of all the Richardsons he felt his claim—as the one who’d known her longest—was paramount. The end result was that Pearl would settle beside Trip, Moody would plop down beside her, sandwiching her between them, Lexie would stretch out on the corner, smirking at the three of them, and turn on the television, and all four of them turned their attention to the screen while remaining keenly aware of everything happening in the room.

The Richardson children, Pearl soon learned, had their most heated discussions about Jerry Springer. “Thank god we live in Shaker,” Lexie said one day during a provocative episode entitled “Stop Bringing White Girls Home to Dinner!” “I mean, we’re lucky. No one sees race here.”

“Everyone sees race, Lex,” said Moody. “The only difference is who pretends not to.”

“Look at me and Brian,” said Lexie. “We’ve been together since junior year and no one gives a crap that I’m white and he’s black.”

“You don’t think his parents would rather he was dating somebody black?” said Moody.

“I honestly don’t think they care.” Lexie popped the tab on another Diet Coke. “Skin color doesn’t say anything about who you are.”

“Shhh,” said Trip. “It’s back.”

It was during one of those afternoons—during “I’m Having Your Husband’s Baby!”—that Lexie suddenly turned to Pearl and asked, “Do you ever think about trying to find your father?” Pearl gave her a calculated blank stare, but Lexie continued anyway. “I mean, like where he is. Don’t you ever want to meet him?”

Pearl turned her eyes to the TV screen, where burly security guards were wrestling an orange-haired woman built like a BarcaLounger back into her seat. “I’d have to start by finding out who he is,” she said. “And, I mean, look at how well this is going. Why wouldn’t I want to?” Sarcasm didn’t come naturally to her, and even to herself she sounded more plaintive than ironic.

“He could be anybody,” Lexie mused. “An old boyfriend. Maybe he split when your mom got pregnant. Or maybe he got killed in an accident before you were born.” She tapped one finger on her lip, brainstorming possibilities. “He could have left her for another woman. Or—” She sat up, titillated. “Maybe he raped her. And she got pregnant and kept the baby.”

“Lexie,” Trip said suddenly. He slid across the sofa and slung an arm over Pearl’s shoulders. “Shut the fuck up.” For Trip to pay attention to a conversation that wasn’t about sports, let alone tune in on someone else’s feelings, was nothing short of unusual, and they all knew it.

Lexie rolled her eyes. “I was just kidding,” she said. “Pearl knows that.

Don’t you, Pearl?”

“Sure,” Pearl said. She forced herself to smile. “Duh.” She felt a sudden rush of dampness beneath her arms, her heart pounding, and she wasn’t sure if it was Trip’s arm around her shoulders, or Lexie’s comments, or both.

Above them, somewhere overhead, Izzy practiced Lalo on her violin. On the screen, the two women leapt from their seats again and began to claw at each other’s hair.

But Lexie’s comment rankled. It was nothing Pearl hadn’t thought about herself over the years, but hearing it spoken aloud, from someone else’s mouth, made it feel more urgent. She had wondered these things, now and again, but when she’d asked as a child, her mother had given her flippant answers. “Oh, I found you in the bargain bin at the Goodwill,” Mia had said once. Another time: “I picked you from a cabbage patch. Didn’t you know?” As a teen, she’d finally stopped asking. This afternoon, the question still churning in her mind, she got home and found her mother in the living room, applying paint to a photograph of a stripped-down bicycle.

“Mom,” she began, then found she could not repeat Lexie’s blunt words.

Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. “Was I wanted?”

“Wanted where?” With one careful lick of the brush Mia supplied a Prussian-blue tire in the empty fork of the bike.

“Here. I mean, did you want me. When I was a baby.”

Mia said nothing for such a long time that Pearl wasn’t sure if she’d heard. But after a long pause, Mia turned around, paintbrush in hand, and to Pearl’s amazement, her mother’s eyes were wet. Could her mother be crying? Her unflappable, redoubtable, indomitable mother, whom she had never seen cry, not when the Rabbit had broken down by the side of the road and a man in a blue pickup had stopped as if to help, taken Mia’s purse, and driven away; not when she’d dropped a heavy bedstead— salvaged from the side of the road—on her baby toe, smashing it so hard the nail eventually turned a deep eggplant and fell away. But there it was: an unfamiliar shimmer over her mother’s eyes, as if she were looking into rippled water.

“Were you wanted?” Mia said. “Oh, yes. You were wanted. Very, very much.”

She set the paintbrush down in the tray and walked rapidly out of the room without looking at her daughter again, leaving Pearl to contemplate the half-finished bicycle, the question she’d asked, the puddle of paint slowly forming a skin over the bristles of the brush.

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