Barbara is out of cigarettes again. It’s wintertime, and she can’t remember a time when it was anything other than wintertime. She takes her long, puffy pink coat with the toggle buttons from the ladder-backed kitchen chair where it lives and buttons it up over her tall, narrow frame. She puts her long fingers in the pockets and feels for loose change. She finds a five dollar bill crumpled up with a bus transfer and grips it tightly in her fist. Checking to make sure that the stove is off (she lights her cigarettes on the coiled electric burners, she can never keep herself in lighters and matches) she steps out the door, pulling it firmly shut behind her.
Outside the sky is black and set with stars and the snow is hard-packed underfoot. Barbara walks laboriously along the road, her scarf buffeted by the wind. Cars pass, sweeping her face with their lights. Suddenly, she pauses, standing upright on the roadside. The stove. Had she remembered to check the stove? And the door- had she remembered to lock the door? She remembers turning off the stove, but what if what she remembers is yesterday morning, when she turned off the stove, and today she has forgotten? What if the burner is hot and glowing, just now beginning to smoke- what if the food and debris caked below the burner catches fire?
Turning against the wind, Barbara re-wraps the scarf around her head and face and trudges back to the apartment. There are long icicles hanging from the eaves of the apartment building, and they glint at her in the light from the road. The front door is unlocked. She had indeed forgotten to lock it. Alarmed, she walks quickly into the kitchen.
Her daughter is there, crouched on the kitchen floor, walking a Barbie doll across the linoleum. Her daughter looks up, eyes wide.
“Are you going to the store?” asks the daughter.
The stove is off.
“Yes.” says Barbara.
“Can I come with you?” asks the daughter.
“Come on.” Barbara re-wraps the scarf around her hair and face, and pulls her thin lips together. It will be harder to get to the store for cigarettes, with the child along. The child hurries into her coat and snow boots and as they leave the apartment, Barbara remembers to lock the door behind her. She pulls it firmly shut and listens as the deadbolt clicks smoothly into place. Outside, the daughter stumbles a little on the ice and Barbara grabs her small hand firmly, pulling her along behind.
They are walking along the road, faces down against the wind, when Barbara remembers the stove. She turns to the daughter, and shouts above the wind.
“Is the stove off? Did you remember to check it?”
The daughter’s face is wrapped in her pink scarf. She looks up at Barbara. “The stove is off, mom.”
“Are you sure?” asks Barbara.
The daughter pulls the scarf from her face. “It’s off, mom.” She has to shout too, against the wind, and her voice is shrill and high, a sort of wail.
Barbara squeezes her cold hand tighter around her daughter’s and wrenches her around, pointing them both towards home. Silently they plod. It is bitter cold, and as they walk against the wind their breath freezes solid in the folds of their scarves, the frost collects on their eyelashes and nostril hairs.
At home the apartment is warm and smells of cigarette ashes and rotten milk. Barbara hurries to the stove, examines each dial, and holds her hand above each burner. The stove is off.
“Well.” says Barbara, re-wrapping the scarf around her face.
“I told you it was off.” says the daughter. The daughter is stamping her feet on the carpet in the living room, trying to get her toes warm.
“Shut up!” says Barbara, hissing like a cockroach. She grabs her daughter’s coat sleeve, pulls her out the door, and shuts the door behind her. After locking the deadbolt again they set out, Barbara striding quickly and the daughter stumbling in her snow-boots behind.
They have almost reached the store, this time, when Barbara remembers the stove. The stove where she lights her cigarettes, the stove that she often, when home, forgets to turn off. The stove she sometimes finds lit late at night, glowing redly in the dark of the apartment. The stove that could start a fire that would easily spread to the jumbles of trash, the haphazard piles of wax-coated pizza boxes. A fire that would kill her son, where he sits unsuspectingly in his bedroom, dismantling the electric motors from small appliances and sorting their parts into piles.
Barbara stops walking and stares forward, the image of the stove like a red-hot coal in her brain.
“I think I forgot to check the stove.” she says.
The daughter rips the scarf from her face.
“Mom!” she shouts. “You turned off the stove! I saw you do it! The stove’s not on!”
“We need to go back and check the stove.” Barbara sets her jaw, and her steely green eyes look out over the frozen road, the lines of cars that pass slowly on the ice.
“Mom! Mom!” the daughter is screaming now, and snot is dripping from her nose. “Mom!” Her voice is high and shrill and off key, like the wail of an ambulance. She is crying now, and the tears are catching in her scarf, where they freeze.
One day, thinks Barbara, this daughter will understand how hard it is to be a mother. Turning in the snow, Barbara walks back in the direction of the house. The daughter stands unmoving behind her, her bare hands clutched into fists, and heaves her wail into the crackling cold air where it waves like a ribbon that rises, and finally falls, and catches in the limbs of the bare winter trees.